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Tired of Nats’ bullpen? Try being a starter who has to throw extra pitches

Nationals Manager Dusty Baker has pulled his starters seemingly only as a matter of last resort, given the bullpen’s struggles (Brett Davis/Usa Today Sports)

The impact the Washington Nationals’ lousy bullpen is having on the club — not to mention on the morale of its fan base — is obvious, both with a cursory look at statistics and even a passing glance at a television during the late innings of these broadcasts. Here are, in no particular order, some rankings for Nationals relievers in all of Major League Baseball: next-to-last in ERA, tied for last in walks and hits per innings pitched, dead last in batting average against — and it’s not even close. There’s no official category for necks strained by line drives whizzing past, but it’s safe to say the Nats would be up there in that, too.

But here’s another interesting ranking: last in innings pitched. Each night on average, the seven pitchers who constitute Washington’s relief corps are asked to get somewhere between eight and nine outs.

Two conclusions: In today’s game, that’s not a very big ask; and we’re thinking about this whole thing backward.

We know, from all the evidence above, that the bullpen is costing the Nats games in the present. What’s not as apparent is that it could be costing them games in the future — and not just from its own failures. Nationals relievers are hurting the entire team, but no one is bearing the burden more than the team’s own rotation.

Here, then, are the National League pitchers averaging the most pitches per outing: Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg. See anything in common? (Pssst. Four of them are Nationals.)

Paging Dr. Andrews. Dr. James Andrews.

Now, despite owning the National League’s most prolific offense, the Nationals are built on their rotation. Taking the ball from Strasburg or Scherzer, who have both pedigree and desire, can be a difficult task. These guys are healthy. They want to keep pitching.

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But look at Sunday afternoon’s game against the Atlanta Braves. With the Nats leading 3-0 in the eighth, Braves on first and second, two outs and Strasburg at 110 pitches, Manager Dusty Baker faced a decision: entrust that last out of the eighth to one of the most talented pitchers in the game, nearing the end of one of his best performances, or pluck one of the acrobats from the high-wire act that is now his bullpen and see how it turns out?

Baker stuck with Strasburg. Dansby Swanson doubled in two runs. Baker had to go to his bullpen anyway. Strasburg ended up with eight more pitches — and 118 for the day.

Still, given the alternative, sticking with Strasburg seemed the obvious and correct move. Do that often enough, though, and there will almost certainly be a cumulative and corrosive effect on the rotation. Wear down the rotation, and the core of the Nats becomes wobbly.

A year ago, the Nationals won the National League East by riding the strong arms of their starting pitchers — starters who ranked second in baseball in ERA, WHIP and average against and led everyone in strikeouts per nine innings. Baker, who arrived in town with a reputation for going to the whip with his rotation, worked them hard, and they thrived. Only San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner threw more pitches than Scherzer and Roark.

So throwing lots of baseballs isn’t new for this group, which remains intact this year — particularly if Joe Ross, recalled from the minors to start Tuesday night’s game against Seattle, becomes a mainstay again.

Yet last year, Baker didn't have to push his starters. The Nats' bullpen ranked in the top three in baseball in ERA and WHIP and allowed opposing hitters just a .230 average. (That's 53 points lower than this year's version, by the way.)

This year, Baker’s alternative isn’t often an alternative.

Already, through nine starts, each Nationals starter is throwing more pitches than he did a year ago. Roark is up from 100.9 to 106.3 per start, Scherzer from 104.8 to 106.2, Gonzalez to 105.8 — a huge jump from 97.4 in 2016 — and Strasburg to 104.8 (up from 99.4 last year). The increased pitch counts have resulted in roughly half an out more per game, and Washington starters rank second only to San Francisco’s in innings per outing.

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What’s more problematic is the calendar. We’re not yet to the end of May, and the increases in workload already are apparent. Starting pitchers normally (and notoriously) work their way into their longest outings of the year during the summer months. When the weather has warmed up, it’s easier to get and stay loose and their arms are strengthened.

Yet already, the Nationals’ four primary starters have 11 appearances in which they have thrown 110 or more pitches, almost once every three times out. Their total last year, in 123 starts: 23, or less than once every five starts.

The Nationals’ front office tried to fix the bullpen in the offseason, courting closers Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen but falling short, signing veteran Joe Blanton — all the stuff that has and will be reviewed as this problem rages on. According to a person with direct knowledge of the organization’s thinking, they also pursued a trade with the White Sox for closer David Robertson and made a run at former Kansas City closer Greg Holland, who was coming off of injury.

Between now and the July 31 trade deadline, General Manager Mike Rizzo and his team will be evaluated by how they fix the club’s most glaring issue. But as we monitor that, we should simultaneously pay attention to how often Baker stands at the top step of the dugout, a threat wondering about whether to take the ball from his starter. The less he feels comfortable doing so, the worse it could get as the season wears on.