Houston — AUGUST 23: Alex Bregman #2 of the Houston Astros is congratulated by George Springer #4 and Josh Reddick #22 after a three-run home run in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals at Minute Maid Park on August 23, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

When informed that reporters hoped to speak to him after Wednesday night’s 6-1 loss to the Houston Astros, Washington Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley asked simply, “Why?”

The three-run home run he allowed in the eighth inning was not the reason the Nationals lost. It did not mean much for their position in the standings, or derail their push for playoff positioning.

But that home run was the 11th Kelley has allowed in 20 innings pitched, a statistic that is astounding in the worst way and has the Nationals’ once-reliable setup man answering questions to which he has no answers.

“I feel like I’ve still made a lot of good pitches and punched guys out and done things well at times,” Kelley said, “and then counteracted that every now and then with another homer. I don’t know.”

Normally, a tack-on homer in the later innings wouldn’t earn much notice. Those things happen, particularly against the best offensive team in the American League. The Nationals (75-49) never really threatened much of a comeback anyway.

Besides, that they lost Wednesday’s game was hardly due to Kelley, alone. The offense never ignited. A miscommunication between Andrew Stevenson and Michael A. Taylor in the outfield led directly to a run. Edwin Jackson allowed a monster home run to Jake Marisnick. Matt Grace allowed a similar home run to Max Stassi.

“The homers kind of did us in tonight,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “But this is a club that hits homers.”

The Astros entered Wednesday evening tied for the league lead in homers. And the man to whom Kelley surrendered the biggest blow, Alex Bregman, has hit 16 of them. That Kelley made a mistake and got punished one time, one August night, is not normally noteworthy.

But Kelley has been punished repeatedly now, so much so that he is allowing 4.95 homers per nine innings, which would be more than double the rate at which any other major league pitcher is allowing them if he had thrown enough innings to qualify.

For reference, no major league pitcher has ever finished a major league season in which he threw at least 20 innings with a home runs-per-nine ratio of more than 4.5. In fact, only one pitcher, Kirby Yates in 2015, has finished a season in which he threw at least 20 innings with a HR/9 rate of more than 4.

Kelley has not thrown enough innings to qualify among relievers this year because he has endured two stints on the disabled list, one for a lower back strain, the other for a right trapezius strain. When he came off the disabled list last weekend in San Diego, he did so hopeful that renewed health would eradicate the glaring home run problem. Kelley has now allowed two home runs in three appearances since returning from the disabled list.

“He is coming back. He is a little rusty. He missed location,” Baker said. “He really didn’t have command of his fastball like he usually does. Hopefully, he’ll get it together here soon.”

“I feel like the eight or nine games I worked in Syracuse I kind of worked the rust off,” said Kelley, revealing a frustration not uncommon among Nationals relievers forced to take their rehab slower than they’d like. “Just wasn’t very good today, that’s all”

Baker was trying to defend his veteran reliever, and Kelley was not trying to contradict his manager. The fact of the matter is that neither man has answers, for if “missed location” were an easy problem to solve, Kelley would have solved it by now.

“I don't know any different other than just going out there and continuing to do what I do,” Kelley said. “It worked for eight or nine seasons so far, so I’ll continue grinding at it.”

A year ago, Kelley was the Nationals’ most reliable setup option. He stayed healthy and stayed out of late-game trouble, pounding the strike zone with a deceptive fastball and biting slider that, even when hitters knew it was coming, still seemed to escape them. Kelley had a 2.64 ERA in 67 appearances last season and entered this season with a chance to close for the Nationals.

Even before the home run he allowed Wednesday, he had been relegated to mop-up duty.

Wednesday aside, the Nationals bullpen has been very good lately, particularly at protecting late-game leads. But as they head down the stretch with a comfortable lead, the Nationals must determine who will be best at holding games they do not lead where they are — and which relievers will not fit on the roster in October.

Grace, who has impressed in unexpected duty, allowed a home run, so he should not be absolved, either. But the shot Kelley allowed — after he allowed a single and walked a man to put two men on — was another example of a troublesome pattern a man to whom the Nationals have committed $15 million over three years cannot seem to shake.

If this year has taught the Nationals anything, it is that relievers are volatile creatures, made so by the volatile nature of their duties, and that sustained success is as hard to predict as sustained failure. Kelley’s home run numbers seem almost certain to progress to a more manageable mean sometime. But to do that, Kelley will need to throw more innings. Until he figures out his home run trouble, the Nationals might have trouble finding him those innings.