Nationals fans are forgiven if they have experienced recurring nightmares since 2012, bad dreams that start the same way every time, when the outfield door swings open.
The ghastly visions started after the National League Division Series against St. Louis. They were resurrected in the 2014 NLDS against the Giants and reinforced in the NLDS last year against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Despite all the success Washington has enjoyed while winning three of the last five NL East titles – usually with sold relief pitching along the way – postseason failure always has been a call (to the bullpen) away.
First it was Drew Storen imploding with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5, as the Cardinals went from two runs behind to two runs ahead. He coughed up another ninth-inning lead a couple years later and the Nats headed to San Francisco trailing 2-0 in the series. Multiple sets of goat horns were distributed in the 2016 playoff finale; the bullpen inherited a 1-1 game that ended as a 4-3 loss.
So, excuse anyone who’s on edge about the Nats’ current situation when starters depart and relievers enter. Those worries typically don’t surface until October rolls around!
Reaching the playoffs is a pretty good proposition right now. The Nats entered Wednesday with baseball’s best record, playing in a dreadful division where the nearest contenders are nine games behind.
Washington’s offense has absorbed the loss of center fielder Adam Eaton and leads the majors in hitting, runs, RBI, slugging, on-base percentage and a slew of other categories. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right fielder Bryce Harper are battling one another for the Triple Crown. Even Michael Taylor, the lineup’s weak link, has heated up, batting .381 with two homers and six RBI in his last six games.
Determining the batting order isn’t the problem for manager Dusty Baker. It’s finding the pitcher(s) capable of taking the ball in late innings and preserving that evening’s handiwork. The main question entering this season – “Do the Nats have a closer?” – has been answered emphatically.
The same could be said about consistent performers to work the middle innings, too. Washington’s bullpen has been a hot mess, not bad enough to prevent success in the regular season, but not good enough to avoid failure in the playoffs.
Entering Wednesday, the Nats had blown 8 of 19 save opportunities, giving them a save percentage of 57.89, below the major-league average (63.10). Five different relievers have blown at least one; Shawn Kelley and Enny Romero have blown a pair. Washington’s record would be worst if not for the offense rallying to produce four victories after the bullpen faltered.
Uncertainty about game-end situations hangs like a cloud, obscuring what should be bright sunshine.
“I knew a long time ago that one of the biggest downers is a blown save,” Baker told reporters Sunday after his team blew a pair of them but split the doubleheader against Philadelphia. “Because it also carries over to the opposition. They think that ‘Hey man, we can get in their bullpen and win the game.’ We have to reverse that thought process.”
Accomplishing that feat with the current personnel isn’t impossible, but that wishful thinking outweighs confidence like elephants crush mice.
Would-be closers Kelley and Blake Treinen have ERAs of 7.15 and 7.64, respectively. Koda Glover has the stuff for the job, but he’s a rookie who has yielded 11 hits against nine strikeouts in 11-2/3 innings. Matt Albers and Jacob Turner have pitched well, but neither recorded a career save prior to this season.
Those candidates should be fine as middle men to bridge the gap between starters and the ninth inning. But all the relievers suffer from uncertain statuses and undefined roles when the closer is in flux, which can make the entire ‘pen shaky.
This is no way for a World Series contender to operate, mimicking the 2016 Giants.
They led the league in blown saves (32), the most by a playoff team since saves became an official stat in 1969. San Francisco converted just 59 percent of its save opportunities, which happens to be a better rate than Washington currently boasts. The Giants’ final indignity was being closed out in the NLDS as the Chicago Cubs rallied for four runs in the ninth inning.
Signs in D.C. point to a preemptive trade, another withdrawal from the Nats’ well-stocked farm system that took a hit in the Eaton deal. The crown jewel is outfielder Victor Robles, who turns 20 on Friday and recently moved up to No. 9 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects. Sensing the Nats’ desperation as Bryce Harper approaches free agency after next season, potential trading partners will be hard-liners.
Baker hopes the situation resolves itself before then.
“We have to look from within right now,” he told reporters Sunday. “Because people know when you’re in need. And when they know you’re in need, they have to rob you — of your system.”
Considering how the last three playoff trips ended, a lights-out closer will be awfully tempting if dangled.
Anyone – at virtually any cost – would be welcome if he’s guaranteed to end Nats fans’ autumn nightmares.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.