These Washington Nationals games, they have seemed so long. Trudge through Saturday night’s blowout-turned-ballgame in Cincinnati, and it felt so familiar, if uncontainable forest fires can feel familiar. A 10-0 lead turned into a 10-7 final that required five relievers and as many antacids and became just the latest data point to illustrate what ailed what otherwise might be a juggernaut.
And then Sunday’s trade. Finally.
“We made a trade we think shortens the game,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
Imagine a world in which the Nats take, say, a 5-3 lead into the eighth inning, and everyone from the stands to the bench to the manager’s seat to the front office feels — gulp — comfortable and confident rather than nervous and nauseous. Maybe that world is here. Maybe.
Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson aren’t Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel, sure. But what matters to these Nationals is that they aren’t Blake Treinen or Trevor Gott or Austin Adams, whose ERA actually is what the entire bullpen’s feels like: infinity. (Actual bullpen ERA: 5.31, worst in baseball.)
What matters is when the two former Oakland Athletics arrive with their new club Monday, they will bring with them WHIPs (walks and hits per inning pitched) that rank fourth and eighth among relievers in all of baseball (minimum: 20 innings pitched). They will bring credibility because each has pitched in the postseason. They bring relief, in every sense of the word, and it will be a wonder if they aren’t hugged — embraced and squeezed and not let go — by the lineup and the rotation when they show up.
(Let’s take one tiny moment, too, to celebrate the fact that Treinen now will be 3,000 miles away in Oakland because he was the one major league piece of the deal. Nice fellow. Good person. Stuff is nasty. Goodbye.)
It’s not yet August, and this Nationals season is already being evaluated for what happens in October. Fair or not, that’s the standard because the fan base and the clubhouse both know what it’s like to win the division, and while that will be another accomplishment — four in six years, in fact — reaching the postseason is not a new experience. Advancing in it would be.
Rizzo, in a phone conversation from Cincinnati, was adamant that Washington’s completion of Sunday’s deal wasn’t pushed by the Chicago Cubs’ acquisition of left-handed starter Jose Quintana, who made his Cubs debut Sunday in Baltimore with seven scoreless innings. But the Nationals are viewed by how they stack up against the rest of the best in the National League. On Saturday, they didn’t look good. On Sunday, they did.
“We started talking about relief options in the winter,” Rizzo said. “When we felt like we had a good deal, we made it. We didn’t look at what anyone else was doing. We focused on our needs, did our due diligence, deployed our scouts, and we ended up with two quality major league relievers we control beyond this year. If it was a rental, we’d be looking for guys this winter, too. . . .
“These guys, you look at their stuff, it’s above average. Their velocity is good. Their peripherals [stats] are good. We like that they’ve done it before. We got better.”
Plus, the Nats held on to their premier prospects. Left-hander Jesus Luzardo, just 19, might turn into something someday. The Nats very much liked his upside, but he is at rookie ball. Infielder Sheldon Neuse, a second-round pick last year, was playing well at low-Class A Hagerstown and may well hit at the major league level.
But there’s no projecting Doolittle and Madson. There’s not much major league players in a pennant race have more disdain for than prospects. How does outfielder Victor Robles, the Nats’ top prospect, help these guys this year? He doesn’t.
Madson and Doolittle do. Both have done what the Nats couldn’t: close games. Who will do that now?
“We’ll get them in here and talk to them, Dusty and I both,” Rizzo said, referring to Baker, his manager.
Maybe Sunday is the day we forget that Treinen entered the season as the closer and that he had to hand it over to Shawn Kelley and that Kelley had to give it up to Koda Glover and that Matt Albers had 460 major league appearances before he recorded his first save this year — and yet, for large swaths of the season, he has seemed like the best option to close.
The Nationals’ main competition for supremacy in the NL is the Dodgers, the team that eliminated them in five games in last year’s division series — and appears better this time around. Los Angeles’s bullpen has the NL’s best ERA (2.95 entering play Sunday), WHIP (1.11) and strikeout percentage (28.3) and the second-best average against (.217), and it’s anchored by Jansen, who is jostling with Boston’s Kimbrel for the title of most dominant reliever in the game.
But slot the 30-year-old Doolittle (holding hitters to a .158 average and .467 on-base-plus-slugging percentage to go along with a tiny 0.656 WHIP) in with the 36-year-old Madson (.188 average, .496 OPS, 0.788 WHIP), and suddenly the Nats’ bullpen can compete.
There’s a trickle-down to getting two relievers in one deal, and you could argue that the Nats need one more — say, all-star Pat Neshek of the Philadelphia Phillies. What do you think, Mike?
“We think we’ve improved a lot,” Rizzo said, “but we’re never done.”
If they are, a playoff bullpen could look like this: Doolittle and Madson, in some order, at the back end. Oliver Perez as the veteran left-hander. Enny Romero as the lefty who can get someone to swing and miss. Glover and Kelley, if they’re back healthy, to pitch in the sixth or seventh instead of the eighth or ninth. Joe Blanton, who finally looked like the player the Nats thought they signed when he struck out three Reds on Sunday.
And then, maybe, Erick Fedde, the club’s top pitching prospect. If you want to root for the best playoff bullpen, root for Fedde to develop at Class AAA Syracuse because he has the kind of high-end stuff that gets people out in October.
But whatever the makeup of that postseason bullpen, the candidates are better now than they were last week. And as the Nats head into another week on the road, they’re prepared to make games what they haven’t been all year: Short.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.