By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009
PHILADELPHIA, April 29 -- Julián Tavárez jogged out from the center field bullpen at Citizens Bank Park for the bottom of the ninth inning of the Washington Nationals' game on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Phillies, marking the Nationals' first foray into their closer-by-committee experiment. The changes to the bullpen were made because the final innings of games in which the Nationals led provided more heartburn than relief.
The eighth and ninth innings now belong to Tavárez and Kip Wells, two veterans with 26 combined seasons of major league baseball experience. Both were free agent signings during spring training, players who did not receive a page in the media guide because they were signed so late. But they are serviceable, a designation received after years of major league service. And in a season when late-inning leads have too often gone awry, Manager Manny Acta can live with serviceable.
Tavárez earned the save in the Nationals' 4-1 win by pitching the ninth inning. Wells earned the hold by pitching the eighth inning. It was Tavárez's first save since May 2006. It was the Nationals' first save since April 21.
"Nothing against the guys in the 'pen," Tavárez said, "but the guys who've been around, they see us different -- when Kip Wells is in the game and myself in the game."
On Wednesday, the Nationals' bullpen proved clutch. Garrett Mock, Kip Wells and Tavárez combined to hold the Phillies to one hit and no runs in 3 1/3 innings. They held the lead for starter Scott Olsen, who allowed only one run and struck out six Phillies in 5 2/3 innings to earn his first win with the Nationals.
"We know that the last two innings that's up to the two veteran guys, depending on the matchups, and we needed that bridge," Acta said. "It worked tonight. It was very important that it wasn't a blowout ballgame, because we need to win these ballgames. We can't expect to win 12-1, 11-2."
Olsen allowed a home run to Shane Victorino in the first inning but kept the Phillies in check for the rest of his outing. He effectively utilized his slider, with emphasis on keeping the ball down in a hitter-friendly ballpark. Olsen induced seven groundouts and threw strikes on 67 of 92 pitches.
"I felt good out there. I felt good in the bullpen warming up. I even felt good pitching to Victorino," Olsen said. "We went to my slider a lot, consistently threw it near the strike zones and made them chase. We put them on the defensive a little bit and it opens up the strike zone for me."
Olsen was one of the Nationals' most promising acquisitions during the offseason, yet he struggled in his first two starts with the Nationals. Olsen failed to make it past the fifth inning in those games, although he recovered in the following two starts. He allowed just two earned runs in both appearances, but the early problems made his 0-3 record and 7.29 ERA appear worse than his recent outings indicated. Olsen said he has pitched well enough to win, but the wins simply have not come.
"The numbers don't show how well he's thrown the ball for us the last three outings," Acta said.
Olsen also was helped by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose quick start has revealed why he is the cornerstone in the franchise's revival effort. Zimmerman's sixth-inning double started a two-run rally and extended his hitting streak to 18 games, a franchise record. His fourth-inning diving stop at third base was the third out when the Phillies had the bases loaded and the chance to break open a tie game -- a "game-saving play," according to Olsen.
Even second baseman Anderson Hernández, who entered the game with two doubles and two RBI, doubled both of his season totals in his 3 for 4 outing. Hernández, known more for his glove than his bat, is now batting .304.
Yet the night belonged to the Olsen and the relievers, who proved that the Nationals can survive late-game situations. Tavárez insisted the closer job is not his to keep -- he said former closer Joel Hanrahan will reclaim the role -- but the veteran duo of Wells and Hanrahan provides experience and stability. Both were essential in holding Wednesday's three-run lead.
"Unfortunately, now the starters are forced to take the games as deep as possible, and you're not sure if a guy is running out of gas, but you keep him in because you have more confidence in them than someone down there," Wells said. "But the bullpen is perhaps spotlighted because you have a lead and lose it."