Nats' Bullpen Relieved of Its Duties

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009

Predictability is not a painkiller, and so the Washington Nationals, after watching their bullpen collapse for the third game in a row, decided to demolish it. They had just lost another game they should have won, relinquishing leads in the eighth and the ninth innings, a repeat matinee of incompetence that left the Nationals with three consecutive blown saves, a 1-10 record and a rabid intolerance to see more of the same.

Washington led for about three hours yesterday at Nationals Park. The final two innings, though, full-nelsoned the Nationals into a 7-4 loss and cost three relief pitchers their jobs. The Nationals, finally, could tolerate no more. Not after Saúl Rivera's 44-pitch self-destruction in Florida's four-run ninth. Not after their bullpen's ERA climbed to 6.48. Certainly not after they fell behind by 9 1/2 games in the National League East.

When this one ended, Manager Manny Acta called the bullpen's performance "embarrassing," and said: "I think it's unacceptable. I think our fans have every right to be mad, like we are right now. And it's not going to be tolerated. We're going to have a brand new bullpen tomorrow, and if those guys that come in don't get it done, we're going to continue getting guys out of here. Because I think all of us deserve better. We had a chance to win three games in a row, we couldn't do it, and it's not going to be tolerated. So starting tomorrow we're going to have a brand new bullpen. Plenty of moves, and more to come."

Minutes later, Acta and acting general manager Mike Rizzo retreated to the manager's office, tucked just down the hallway from the clubhouse, and summoned the relievers one by one: First, righty Steven Shell, designated for assignment. Then lefty Wil Ledezma, designated for assignment. Then the once-reliable Rivera, who has lost all ability to throw strikes. Each returned to a locker he no longer owned. Shell hurled his car keys and a piece of paper against the wall. "I just feel like the bullpen is the reason we're losing all these games," Shell said, "so I guess they've got to do something."

The Nationals will rebuild their bullpen with two of the players they originally considered this spring -- Garrett Mock and Jason Bergmann -- and one veteran who's worked as a starter with Class AAA Syracuse, Kip Wells. For tonight's game against Atlanta, all will be in Washington. Perhaps the change of faces will do nothing to alter the results -- Acta began the season concerned, above all, about his bullpen -- but this much is certain: No way can the losses become more painful or predictable.

Washington entered the day with baseball's worst fielding percentage, second-highest error total, and a gruesome 6.57 ERA among starters. Still, the team was losing by slim margins -- in extra innings, heartbreakers. In baseball parlance, this was because they didn't yet know how to win.

So here came this game, the series finale against the Marlins, where so many opportunities to win came raining down that no way could a team duck all of them at once. Washington's 2-3-4-5-6 hitters, three times through the order, had reached base 11 of 15 times. Every uh-oh, three-ball pitch thrown by Daniel Cabrera seemed to yield an out, and through five innings, he had allowed just three hits. For official confirmation of a charmed day, Cabrera, at bat with two on and two outs in the fifth, drew a four-pitch walk. It was the first time in 22 career plate appearances that he reached.

In part because they left 13 runners on base, though, the Nationals nursed a 3-2 lead into the eighth. That's where the ineffectiveness greeted them. With two outs and nobody on, Mike Hinckley threw a belt-high fastball that Cody Ross ripped over the left field fence. As Hinckley watched it soar, he took a writhing jump off the mound, as if absorbing an electrical shock. The 16,974 at Nationals Park just groaned.

Florida tried hard to give the Nationals an opportunity to win the game in spite of themselves. In the bottom of the eighth, with runners on first and third, Ryan Zimmerman pounded a gimme 5-4-3 double play down the line. The 5-4 part worked just fine. But then, Florida's Dan Uggla skipped the throw to first, allowing Anderson Hernández to score. The Nationals led 4-3.

"You think that's kind of the break we needed to go ahead," Zimmerman said. "And I guess obviously it wasn't."

It wasn't, because Rivera still needed to record three outs. Acta chose the right-hander because he had few other options; Joe Beimel and Joel Hanrahan each pitched in the three previous games and needed a rest. And Rivera, from 2006 to 2008, always had a sub-4.00 ERA. But here, he walked the leadoff man, Emilio Bonifacio. A John Baker double to left-center tied it. Two walks later, Rivera allowed a bases-clearing double to Ross.

"The incompetence of the bullpen was drawn to a head today," Rizzo said, "and it got to the point where it just wasn't fair for the fans, it wasn't fair for the rest of the teammates and the starting pitchers to go status quo. We're going to change things up."

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