Through seven games, the Nationals’ pitching strength has been their starters. Albeit an incredibly small sample size, the starters have posted a 3.20 ERA in 39 1/3 innings, the eighth best mark in the majors, despite a bad start by Dan Haren. But on Tuesday, the bullpen was again inconsistent. Craig Stammen allowed the game-tying run in the sixth inning, but the heavier burden falls unfairly on Wilson Ramos, whose throw hit Alex Rios in the helmet as he slid into second base on a steal.
Despite a near-perfect spring, Tyler Clippard allowed his first runs of the season on a three-run home run by Paul Konerko in the seventh. And new closer Rafael Soriano nearly blew another save opportunity when he served up a two-run home run to Rios in the ninth inning to trim the lead to one. Overall, the Nationals bullpen has punched up a 6.85 ERA in the majors, second-worst in the majors, in 23 2/3 innings. They have allowed only a few walks and struck out plenty, but are allowing crucial hits and home runs. But it’s a long season, and the reconfigured bullpen is just starting to ease into its new roles.
“It’s early in the year,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Guys are not throwing like I know they’re capable of. That’s the first time Clip’s given up any runs since he started throwing in the spring. But Storen’s getting better location, getting sharper. Soriano, he’s not exactly where he needs to be, as far as I’m concerned. He’s mostly just throwing fastballs and locating fastballs. He hasn’t used much of his other stuff.”
With one out, Clippard, primarily a two-pitch pitcher, struggled to locate his change-up against left-handed batter Alejandro De Aza and walked him. Jeff Keppinger likely saw this and pounced on a first-pitch fastball for a single. Clippard managed to keep Rios off balance enough to induce a pop out. But against Konerko, Clippard’s fastball caught too much of the plate and he drilled it for a three-run home run to left field.
Soriano faltered when his fastballs caught too much of the plate. De Aza singled on a 93 mph fastball over the heart of the strike zone. And Rios homered on a 86 mph slider nearly in the same spot. Without asking Soriano, it’s likely the fastball to Rios was meant to cut and didn’t, a miscue Soriano said doomed him in Cincinnati. But why has Soriano used only fastballs and not mixed in his biting slider? Soriano’s best pitch, in fact, is his fastball, and the variations of them that move and bend in different ways.
“By and large that’s all he’s needed to do to get by,” Johnson said. “But he’s got great breaking stuff, too. He locates the fastball really good. He cuts it. But it’ll all come around. I’m not concerned. I know what I’ve got out there in the ‘pen.”
The most consistent relievers so far have been Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen, who pitched a perfect eighth inning setting up for Soriano on Tuesday. He blew a 95-mph fastball past Tyler Flowers for a looking strikeout and fooled DeWayne Wise on a diving change-up.