If for one minute you’re inclined to think that the failures of the Washington Nationals’ bullpen are contained merely to the seven — or, now, eight, count ’em eight — relievers who cower nightly beyond the right field wall at Nationals Park, you’re sorely mistaken. This is not about introspection or shame for Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen and Koda Glover, et al. In the clubhouse, this is viewed as an organizational failure, because that’s what it is.
When the Nationals headed to spring training with that group as the candidates to close, there was a choice as to how to interpret that decision. There was either a franchise-wide arrogance that the team could coax elite performance in the ninth inning from pitchers who hadn’t previously proved they could handle such a task. Or — worse — there was a franchise-wide indifference to, or ignorance about, the possibility of implosion. Neither is particularly flattering.
So here we are, 64 games into the season, lobbing criticism, trying to figure out who to blame for what is a mess that, at the moment, can’t be mopped up by a potent lineup and what might be the game’s best rotation. And that lineup, and that rotation, oh, do they ever realize it.
The situation is such that, when the Nats held a 10-5 lead in the ninth Tuesday night against the Braves, collars tightened when Kelley gave up two hits, and then a flyball to Matt Kemp. It didn’t make the wall. Yet a fan base — and a bench — worried. Who can blame them? Not Dusty Baker, the manager. With one out to get in a five-run game, he played matchup with lefty Oliver Perez. There are no easy circumstances.
Perez got the last out. The normal reaction: Ho-hum. The reaction now: Whew.
The problem with the relievers themselves is obvious. Handed a 3-1 ninth-inning lead Saturday, the bullpen delivered a 6-3, 11-inning loss to Texas. Handed a 1-1 game in the eighth Sunday, the bullpen delivered a 5-1 loss to the Rangers. Handed a 9-6 eighth-inning lead Monday, the bullpen delivered an 11-10 loss to the Braves. The list of relievers who were charged with earned runs in those three games is nearly all-encompassing: Jacob Turner, Matt Albers, Perez, Treinen, Glover and Kelley. Only Enny Romero, who added two scoreless frames Tuesday, appeared and wasn’t charged with a run. This is equal-opportunity gagging. No team has given up more runs from the seventh inning on than the Nationals.
But because the bullpen issues are so pervasive, they are causing the other branches of the Nats to do exactly what management would not want them to do: focus on the inability of the front office and/or ownership to make a good team a great one.
Let’s follow this along. The Nationals still lead the National League in runs per game, nearly 5 ½ each time they play entering Tuesday’s games, as well as batting average (.274), on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.468). The offense’s on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.808) is higher than that of Miguel Cabrera (.782 OPS), Chris Davis (.781) or Hanley Ramirez (.769), to name a few.
When some Nationals worried in the offseason about the lack of an established closer coming into spring training, management’s position was, understandably: “Do your job.” Now, the entire lineup can respond with authority: “We are.”
And yet three winnable games, two of them all but won, were lost.
“We feel like we have to win the game three times,” one Nationals position player said recently.
Another established position player noted that, on more than one occasion, the Nats have come off the field in the middle innings, already with five or six runs on the board, and Baker has exhorted them with something along the lines of, “Let’s get some more.” The need is implied.
“That drives us crazy,” the player said. “Get some more? Come on. We’ve done our job.”
Take whatever side you want here — that Baker’s just trying to be positive and the hitters are whining, or that the hitters have a right to be frustrated that they’re always asked for more. But the point is this: there wouldn’t be such tension if the bullpen was reliable, and a 3-1 lead in the ninth or a 9-6 lead in the eighth was what it’s supposed to be, which is a comfortable situation, the game almost in the bag.
Instead, that tension is undeniable every time the bullpen gate swings open. Like many fans, I am certainly done with “pitcher wins” as a statistic (a subject for another day, but they’re impossibly arbitrary, and we have so many better ways to evaluate and predict performance). But out of habit or tradition, many starting pitchers still fancy them. So if you don’t think, say, Gio Gonzalez realizes that he has left four games with a lead, having pitched enough innings to register a win, only to have the bullpen turn the game into a loss, well, then, you’re not paying attention to how the brain of the modern athlete works.
So with the relievers crumbling, the rest of the clubhouse — and possibly even the manager and the coaching staff — can concentrate way too much on who’s not here, and why. We have written this so much, but the current situation makes review inescapable still: The Nats don’t have Mark Melancon, their closer after the trade deadline a year ago, because he took more money to sign with the Giants. They don’t have Kenley Jansen, who they turned to after Melancon, because he decided to re-sign with the franchise that raised him, the Dodgers.
But according to people with knowledge of the situation, the Nats don’t have David Robertson of the White Sox because, when an offseason trade was in place, the club’s ownership balked. The Nats don’t have Greg Holland, the former closer for the Royals coming back from injury, because when a deal was in place, the Lerner family wouldn’t approve it. Holland now has a 1.14 ERA and has saved all 23 of his opportunities for Colorado, which leads the NL West.
The players know most of that. And so it is up to General Manager Mike Rizzo to fix this mess, which, if he had been able to trade for Robertson and sign Holland, likely wouldn’t exist, but is his to solve regardless. The fans are watching, of course. But so is a more important group: the players.
And that brings us to the biggest questions we can ask: What are the goals here? Are the goals to have an organization set up to annually win at least 90 games — give or take — and be in the postseason hunt? If so, no problem. From the beginning of the 2012 season until now, five years and change, no franchise has won more games than your Washington Nationals. Huzzah.
But the goal, we must presume, is to win a World Series. Yet the way the bullpen was constructed as the Nats headed into the season — whether it be by Rizzo and the baseball operations team, or by ownership — was disrespectful as to what’s necessary to achieve that goal.
The two pennant winners last fall, Cleveland and the Cubs, made deals for the most dominant relief arms available at the deadline — Andrew Miller to the Indians and Aroldis Chapman to Chicago. At the moment, the only way to signal to the non-relievers in the clubhouse that the goal of winning a World Series is shared from players to coaches to the front office — and, most of all, to ownership — is to pursue the kind of arm(s) that will allow the lineup to win a game once, and then know it has done its job. Until then, the bullpen’s problems will fester in the clubhouse, giving the team’s most important employees — the players — an unflattering view of ownership’s priorities.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.