The world of relieving is one of small sample sizes and magnified performances. Pitch well in a critical inning and you’re lauded. Do the opposite once, maybe even twice in as many appearances, and your struggles are amplified. If the Nationals’ bullpen looks shaky recently, that is exactly why: Three of their tough outings have occurred in the brief time period of five days.
Sure, Ian Desmond’s errant throw to home plate in Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves allowed them to walk off with a win, but Sean Burnett’s prior two singles in the inning allowed the winning run to reach base and move into scoring position. Ryan Mattheus’s uncharacteristic lack of command allowed the Braves to win the following day, 5-4. And in Wednesday’s second game of the doubleheader, Tyler Clippard gave up the winning home run in the top of the ninth inning of a deflating, 7-6 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers after a dramatic six-run comeback.
So in the span of five days, the Nationals’ bullpen was responsible for three close and important losses. And because two of those games were in a crucial series against the Braves and one could have clinched a playoff berth, the mistakes are enlarged. Is this a sign of decline? Will this happen in future high-pressure situations down the stretch or in the playoffs?
If you widen the sample size, Nationals relievers have actually been among baseball’s best. Over the past month, the bullpen is 3-5 with a 2.76 ERA (seventh-best in the majors) over 81 2/3 innings, a middle-of-the-pack workload. The starters, on the hand, have been good but not to the standard they set earlier in the season. Again, 30 days is a small sample size, but in that span the Nationals’ starting rotation is 11-7 with a 3.90 ERA (10th best in the majors) over 147 2/3 innings.
Overall, since Aug. 19, the Nationals’ team record is 16-12. Seven of those losses have come by two runs or less; five of them can be traced back to the stumbles of the bullpen. But the other seven losses in the past 30 days can be attributed to the starting pitchers. This happens over the course of the season and is no cause for alarm; the Nationals, at a 3.28 team ERA, are still tied for the best mark in the majors. (Over the past month, too, the bullpen’s ERA dropped from 3.39 to 3.20.)
The recent funk of Burnett and two tough outings by Clippard in past month — two of the Nationals’ most-used relievers — are something to keep an eye on. Clippard pitched both games on Wednesday after seven days of rest; the second time entering in the ninth inning of a tie game at home, standard practice. Given the nature of being a reliever, especially at this point of the season, those performances loom larger than before. Keep in mind, however, that the bullpen in fact has been performing relatively well.