It’s easy to forget that the Washington Nationals are in the most envious position in baseball, sitting with a fat seven-game lead in the National League East with no one else in the division even sniffing .500.
They will clinch their fourth division title in six years in September.
They have perhaps the most glamorous team this side of Chicago. Yet, their designer tastes up and down the roster are too often undercut by a bullpen better suited for the bargain bin at Kmart.
And unless they fix that, they’ll be home in early October, finished again without winning a single playoff series.
The Nationals (26-17) are so petrified about their bullpen that Sunday they left Stephen Strasburg in the game for 118 pitches, the second time in four starts he’s thrown so many as the club tries to go as long as possible without turning to the bullpen. They finally had no choice after Strasburg gave up a two-out, two-run double in the eighth inning, ending his shutout bid.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker held his breath the final four outs, with rookie Koda Glover getting the save, clinging to a 3-2 victory against the Atlanta Braves to avert a sweep. It was the first time in eight games the bullpen didn’t surrender a run.
The Nationals might have the greatest offense in the National League and a star-studded rotation, but their bullpen is the worst in the land. It entered Sunday’s game with a 5.46 ERA, second worst behind the Seattle Mariners. They are yielding a horrifying .846 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, the worst in baseball. And no one has permitted more walks and hits, 1.51, per nine innings.
“Losing games in the ninth inning has been so demoralizing,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo tells USA TODAY Sports. “It’s certainly not the way you want to go through a season. You look at our team, and all of the great performances and great seasons we’re having, and nobody is talking about it. It’s all about the bullpen and how those guys are struggling. It gets old.
“We’ve got guys that are underperforming in the bullpen, and that’s on me to take care of it.”
The easiest fix for the Nationals would be to acquire closer David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox are shopping him, the Nationals need him, and they nearly completed a deal for him before spring training. The Nationals, according to executives with direct knowledge of the deal, were to send 19-year-old left-hander Jesus Luzardo and minor league infielder Drew Ward to the White Sox for Robertson, with the White Sox eating about half of the $25 million remaining in his contract. But the deal got hung up over money.
The Nationals expressed strong interest in Greg Holland, but he wound up signing a one-year, $7 million contract with the Colorado Rockies, who look like geniuses for that move. He has been perfect in 19 save opportunities this season and has a 0.96 ERA, while the Nationals have used five relievers in save situations, blowing eight of them. Again, it came down to money.
The Nationals actually had planned to spend their money on free agent closer Kenley Jansen. They backed out of the Mark Melancon sweepstakes when the San Francisco Giants offered $62 million over four years. They never made a formal offer for Aroldis Chapman. Yet they offered a five-year, $85 million contract to Jansen, with only $5 million deferred, but he returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Nationals are back to square one, desperate for bullpen help, with the price tag only going higher as the season progresses.
“We’re not afraid to make a trade, but the supply and demand of these elite relievers are far and between. They’re so hard to get,” Rizzo says.
Ironically, the guy they’d love to have back is the one they let get away in Melancon, whom they acquired at last year’s trade deadline from the Pittsburgh Pirates for hard-throwing reliever Felipe Rivero. Yet the Giants (19-26) have won seven of their last nine games and shown no inclination that they’re ready to sell.
Melancon also has a full no-trade clause, but if the Giants were to ask him to waive it, Melancon made clear Sunday how much he enjoyed his stint in Washington.
“It was a great situation, they were first class,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time over there. Just a lot of good people.”
Meanwhile, the Nationals can only wait, hoping their bullpen scars heal and their huge lead in the NL East bides them time while waiting for potential trade candidates such as Kelvin Herrera of the Kansas City Royals, Roberto Osuna of the Toronto Blue Jays, Tony Watson of the Pirates and A.J. Ramos of the Miami Marlins.
“We’ll see what’s available at the trade deadline, but right now we have to depend on the guys we have,” Rizzo says. “We’ve got five relievers that are way underperforming to their average. They’ve all done it in the past, but right now these guys are struggling.”
The Nationals’ biggest fear is that the bullpen blemishes will erode their confidence. They don’t want their team wondering what will go wrong next in the late innings of every game, or for opponents to feel a surge of optimism every time Washington’s bullpen gate opens.
“We need help,” Baker says. “It’s tough when you take leads late in the game and can’t hold it.”
Just ask Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who watched his team blow a major league-leading 30 saves last year, culminating with an excruciating 6-5 loss in Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Chicago Cubs. Bochy turned to five relievers in that fateful ninth inning, and none could preserve a 5-2 lead, a loss that haunts Bochy.
“There’s no question it affects a team’s morale,” Bochy said. “We saw it last year. When it happens time and time again, it’s really hard on the ballclub. They lose confidence. You get to a point where you’re thinking, ‘OK, what’s going to happen next?’
“It’s like a boxing bout. You take only take so many body blows until you’re knocked out.”
Says Giants All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford: “You’re giving yourself a chance to win, you’re in position to win, and when you lose, those are definitely tougher losses. It’s a little tougher to wipe those games off.”
The Nationals have time to get it right. There are seven more weeks until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. There are 4½ months left until the postseason. Baseball executives predict a surplus of pitchers will be available at the deadline, and everyone knows the Nationals will have at least one veteran closer when August rolls around.
“I’ve been able to play on some great teams with the Nats, and this is definitely one of the best,” leading MVP candidate Bryce Harper says. “We still have a long ways to go, but I’ve got a lot of faith in this group. No one is pointing fingers. We’re all in this together, and that’s what it’s all about.
“Really, we’ll be fine.”
The Nationals are too talented to let a broken bullpen deter them. This could finally be their year, and for the first time since 1924, there could be a World Series champion in Washington.
“We will do everything we can, inside and out, to get this right,” Rizzo says. “No stone will go unturned. We’re very confident that we are going to have a bullpen that takes us where we want to go.”
They’ve got no choice.