Nationals' Bullpen Remains a Debacle

Outfielder Adam Dunn sits on the bench after the Nationals were swept by the Phillies. Washington is on a pace to allow more runs than any team save one in the last 70 years.
Outfielder Adam Dunn sits on the bench after the Nationals were swept by the Phillies. Washington is on a pace to allow more runs than any team save one in the last 70 years. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, May 18, 2009

The "Natinals" pitching staff is now so bad they may shorten their nickname further, to "Natnals." The "i" can't bear to watch.

After another eighth-inning bullpen implosion yesterday to squander a lead and lose, 8-6, the Nats are now on pace to give up 1,029 runs this season. That sounds awful. But it's worse. Since 1939, only one team has given up more than that -- the 1996 Tigers, who lost 109 games. So, it's not surprising the world champion Phillies didn't take batting practice yesterday. After three games in two days against the Nats, they'd already had plenty of it.

Also yesterday, in the very same game, Cristian Guzmán got three hits to take the NL league lead in hitting at .381. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn each got their 30th RBI, putting them both on pace for 131 this season. Elijah Dukes doubled in a run, so he's on track for 105 RBI. Nick Johnson reached base four times and raised his average to .333. And the Nats' bludgeoning lineup remained ranked fourth in the NL in runs scored.

So, is this 11-25 glass half full (of offense) or almost entirely empty (of victories)?

For now, go with the latter. If the Nats had a bullpen, they would be entertaining and competitive, at least on days when John Lannan or rookies Shairon Martis (5-0) and Jordan Zimmermann (2-1) start. But they don't, so they aren't.

Until you have a 'pen that can hold a lead and a starting rotation that does not include Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen, who've allowed 75 runs in 80 1/3 innings (the Nats are 1-14 in their starts), what you have is a fan's nightmare. Luckily, about half of this crowd of 29,577 went home happy. They were Phillies fans. Drive safe.

This time, a reliever found a new way to lose -- by making a perfect play. With two on and none out in the eighth, Nats ahead 6-5, Jesús (Column B) Colome fielded a bunt and threw with geometric precision to first base. But Anderson Hernández, covering first base, jumped out of the way of the ball before it could hit him. So, as the throw rolled far away, a sacrifice bunt attempt had the same effect as a two-run, game-winning triple.

"I asked him, 'What happened?' " said Manny Acta. "He said he lost the ball in the crowd." Or maybe Hernández was just shocked to see a Nats reliever throw a strike.

Asked about the play, Zimmerman said, "It seems like we can do some stuff right now that other people can't." At least not the ones above Class A.

Fortunately, the Nats' patience, even Acta's stoic act, has run out after watching nine games lost after holding a lead in the eighth or ninth innings.

It's said that hitting is contagious. Can bad pitching be the same? And can it last all season? "If it stays like this, it's going to be with other guys. We're not going to put up with this," said Acta. "This doesn't cut it."

Step 1 is obvious. As soon as feasible, the Nats need to admit that the 6-foot-9 Cabrera, perhaps the wildest pitcher in captivity, is just the latest in a line of "high-ceiling" disasters from the Jim Bowden era, the pitching equivalent of Wily Mo Peña, the 500-foot BP extravaganza who couldn't hit any pitch with a wrinkle.

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