Nats' Bullpen Stuck In a Bear Market

Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto pitches against the Washington Nationals in the second inning of a baseball game, Thursday, July 3, 2008, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Cincinnati Reds starter Johnny Cueto pitches against the Washington Nationals in the second inning of a baseball game, Thursday, July 3, 2008, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman) (Al Behrman - AP)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008

CINCINNATI, July 3 -- When the bottom of the seventh inning began Thursday night, the bullpen gates opened, and from underneath a hanging, rectangular DHL billboard in right field emerged right-hander Jesús Colome, a relief pitcher whose introduction often coincides with the relinquished grip on a game.

Colome trotted to the mound, taking both the ball and the fortunes of a tied contest into his hand. What happened next -- in a span of 17 pitches from three members of the bullpen -- offered a graphic illustration of the Washington Nationals' newest, latest problem. The team's bullpen, once known for its reliability, has become a liability. Its latest escapades twisted a strong Washington effort into an uncomfortable 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark.

In the seventh inning, the Nationals allowed two go-ahead runs, burying another quality start from John Lannan and the timely offense that staked Washington to an early lead. For the third time in four games this road trip, the Nationals received a reminder of the link between bullpen appearances and consequences: Since leaving town, the bullpen has, in order, blown a lead, nearly blown a lead, blown a lead and blown a tie.

When the bullpen gates open, it's become more a question of "when" than "whether."

"We just didn't do it today," Manager Manny Acta said.

Lannan's six innings, plus a home run from Elijah Dukes and an RBI single from Austin Kearns, had placed the Nationals in a tight, late game. Colome -- usually saved for less urgent situations -- stepped in. After recording one out, he made the kind of pitch that should have led easily to a second.

Corey Patterson, pinch-hitting for Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto, bounced a first-pitch slider back to the mound. Colome grabbed it on two hops and turned to first. He picked the wrong time to throw another slider.

Instead of lobbing a toss to Dmitri Young, Colome hurled the ball low and fast. The throw caught Young on the inside of his mitt and deflected into foul territory, leading to a two-base error that, Young later said, "opened up the floodgates."

The official scorekeeper charged the error to Young, but those in the Washington clubhouse -- that is, those excluding Colome -- found fault with the pitcher.

"Absolutely [the error] should have gone to Jesús," Acta said. "It was way too hard for that distance. I told Dmitri when I went out there that I was just glad [Colome] didn't throw it at his face, because it could have hurt him. No reason to throw the ball that hard from that close."

Colome contested that, saying that he had to hurry, because Patterson had good speed. But he made at least one incontrovertible point: "If Dmitri catches the ball right there, the inning -- it's two outs."

The error had started the downhill momentum. Colome faced two more hitters, and both reached base -- the latter via an intentional walk. With the bases loaded for Ken Griffey Jr., Acta called Charlie Manning from the bullpen. It was lefty vs. lefty. It was also legend vs. ex-farmhand. Griffey strode to the plate, black bat held in his left hand. Stadium music blared. The scoreboard told fans to "Get Loud!!!"

Manning, though, handled the matchup with poise. He jumped ahead in the count, then used an outside-corner curveball to induce a popup to third. "I mean, to keep us in the ballgame, keep us tied right there, it was huge," Manning said. "I got what I wanted."

Problem is, Washington's bullpen struggles to finish innings with the same end-result satisfaction. The Nationals have the poorest bullpen ERA (4.54) in the National League. Not once has Washington trailed this road trip when its starter departs; still, the team has lost three of four.

To face right-hander Brandon Phillips, Acta removed Manning in favor of Luis Ayala. One pitch later, the Nationals trailed, 5-3. Phillips lofted a soft flare over first base, bringing home both Patterson and Jerry Hairston Jr.

The Nationals failed in their final two innings to spark a comeback, and after the game, Acta returned to the visiting manager's office, where the chart listing relief pitchers sat on his desk. The four who had pitched against Cincinnati had ERAs, entering the ballgame, of 5.85, 4.95, 5.44 and 5.14.

"Bullpens from year to year, they're kind of unpredictable," Acta said. "The biggest difference in our bullpen right now -- it's [missing Chad] Cordero, who saves 35 games per year. Instead of Cordero we have [Steven] Shell and Brian Sanches, we have guys like that. That's been the biggest difference, and if you compare, it's a huge one."

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