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There’s no confusion here: The Nationals can’t get relief from bullpen concerns

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, left, pulls Austen Williams from a game against San Francisco this month. (Nick Wass/AP)

It’s the bullpen, stupid. Don’t let those eight consecutive zeros on the scoreboard Sunday, or four more Monday night, fool you. It’ll be the bullpen Tuesday night against St. Louis. It’ll be the bullpen on the impending — and daunting — ­10-game road trip through Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Forget about failing to score in eight of nine innings Monday. It’s the bullpen, it’s the bullpen, it’s the bullpen.

The Washington Nationals have meshed high expectations and slow starts before, and they’re not alone in that category, through history or this spring. The Boston Red Sox won last year’s World Series and entered the week a rather disturbing ­11-17. The Atlanta Braves won the National League East a year ago and had lost eight of 12 to fall under .500 when Monday dawned. It happens.

But the Nats’ sputtering April has a defining element like few do, and until it’s fixed — not for a day or a week, but for a month or more — it’s impossible to look away.

“They get it, and they understand,” Manager Dave Martinez said Sunday of his beleaguered relievers. “They struggled, but we need them. We need those guys.”

And badly. Forget, for now, the fact that Craig Kimbrel, a historically good reliever, is a free agent. Yes, various players and front-office members believe he is the difference between winning the division and letting an opportunity slide. There isn’t an NL East contender that wouldn’t be helped by signing Kimbrel. And yet his continued availability would be an indication that his contract demands have not dropped below some version of “unreasonable.” Atlanta could use him. Philadelphia could use him. The Nats could use him. Still, he sits there.

So put Kimbrel aside. For now, the guys who did it Sunday are the guys who have to do it again. And again. It’s impossible to overstate their impact on the season to this point and their importance going forward.

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Here are eight categories that might well be labeled “important” in terms of team success: runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, on-base-plus-slugging percentage, home runs, ERA for starting pitchers and walks and hits per inning pitched for starters.

The Nationals rank in the top half of baseball in every single one. They’re not outstanding; for example, their 4.20 ERA for the rotation through the weekend would be their highest since they started contending in 2012. But they’re not killing themselves in any of those areas, either.

Here are two more: bullpen ERA and bullpen WHIP. The Nats are last in the National League in both and 29th in baseball — ahead of only poor, lowly Baltimore — only because five Washington relievers collected themselves for those eight scoreless innings in Sunday’s badly needed 7-6 victory over San Diego, and three more picked up Patrick Corbin with four scoreless innings in Monday’s 6-3 loss to the Cardinals.

If it seems like it has been impossible to turn thoughts away from the bullpen, it’s because it has been impossible to turn thoughts away from the bullpen. Never have Nationals relievers started a season this poorly. That includes the days when the bullpen included, say, Levale Speigner and Jesus Colome, Chris Schroder and Saul Rivera, back when the Nats were far more likely to lose 100 than win 100.

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Even in those lean years, the Nationals’ bullpens never struggled through spring as this one has. Sunday morning, the crew rose with an astonishing 7.34 ERA. The last team to finish April with an ERA worse than that? The Colorado Rockies at (gulp) 8.74 — in 2005.

Sunday’s performance lowered the mark to 6.57 — awful but no longer historically awful. Still, Washington’s worst March/April bullpen ERA (5.70) before this was in the infamous 2017 season, when a loaded team somehow entered the year with shaky Blake Treinen (before he was an all-star) and vagabond Shawn Kelley as the best options at closer. Treinen’s ERA at this point that year: a cool 10.00. Kelley’s was a more modest 5.40.

It seemed like a crisis, and Dusty Baker, then the manager, grew tired of talking about whom he could rely on and how he would navigate the last nine outs. But even with all the uneasiness, the Nats somehow ended that April in first place at 17-8. The crisis was contained, General Manager Mike Rizzo pulled off a trade for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, and the Nats never relinquished the division lead.

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This year, the bullpen is threatening to undermine the whole operation. Before Sunday, the Nationals had been tied after the sixth inning four times, and tied after the seventh inning four times as well. They had lost every one of those games. What does that tell you? Each time, Washington’s bullpen was outpitched. That wears on a team.

The culprits are everywhere. Trevor Rosenthal, signed to be the eighth-inning reliever, is a mess. He either hasn’t recorded an out or has allowed a run — or both — in each of his seven appearances, and he is finally on the injured list with a “virus” the team should have exposed him to about 10 days earlier. He’ll have a month to get healthy, go on a rehab assignment and figure it out.

Kyle Barraclough, Rosenthal’s most likely replacement who generally has been effective, still doesn’t have a 1-2-3 inning. Veteran lefty specialist Tony Sipp is allowing left-handed hitters a .333 average. The Nats have employed three relievers with an ERA under 5.00 and seven with an ERA north of that. Things have been so dicey that Martinez called on Doolittle, the closer, with a five-run lead to get the final out of their only win in Miami.

Now, by way of encouragement: Doolittle (1.35 ERA, 17 strikeouts in 13⅓ innings) is still an elite closer. That’s expected. What’s not: the recent contributions from converted starters Erick Fedde (four scoreless innings Sunday) and Joe Ross (6 1 /3 scoreless innings in his past five appearances, holding opponents to a .217 average).

Fedde, a 2014 first-round pick, looked like a different version of himself against the Padres: aggressive with a fastball at 96 mph but mixing in an excellent curve. He was sent back to the minors Monday, but people in the organization believe what he showed Sunday is who he actually is.

Ross pitched for the first time in his life on back-to-back days, and though he lost the strike zone momentarily Sunday, he ultimately got Manny Machado to pop up with the bases loaded. Justin Miller, once scored upon in four straight outings, tossed two scoreless frames Monday. Wander Suero, torched for four in the 10th Saturday, had a scoreless eighth.

Maybe Rizzo eventually will make a trade. It would have to be from a depleted group of prospects on the farm. The better bet: This is, for now, the group. Chad Cordero isn’t walking through that door. Craig Kimbrel probably isn’t, either. The Nats may have issues with injuries, on defense, at the plate and on the base paths. But until you’re told otherwise, the topic that matters is the bullpen, stupid. The bullpen, the bullpen, the bullpen.