May 19, 2014, 6:00 AM EST
They’ve lost more than half their starting lineup to injuries at various points over the last two months. Their star-studded rotation has been decidedly average to date. And they’ve been among the worst defensive clubs in baseball.
So how have the Nationals managed to go 23-20 over the season’s first seven weeks, leaving themselves a half-game out of first place in the NL East entering tonight’s series opener against the Reds?
Credit their bullpen, which has been nothing short of dominant.
Pick your stat to confirm this. With three more scoreless innings during yesterday’s 6-3 win over the Mets, the Nationals’ relief corps now sports a collective 2.07 ERA, best in the major leagues. From the seventh inning on, that group’s ERA drops to 1.85, again best in the majors. They’ve got the only bullpen in baseball with at least four pitchers who boast ERAs under 2.00 over at least 10 innings: Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Aaron Barrett.
Is it any wonder the Nationals exude confidence right now when their relievers take over a game?
“We feel that way,” Clippard said. “We feel very confident. We’re kind of in that mode right now. Just get us the lead, and we’ll do our thing. I think that’s certainly the case right now.”
Every member of the group has contributed in some way to date, but the three right-handers who comprise the back end of Matt Williams’ pen have led the way.
Storen is enjoying the best stretch of his career right now. He owns a 1.26 ERA in 17 games. He has 15 strikeouts to only one walk. Opponents are a collective .140 (7-for-50) against him this season.
“I like where I’m at right now,” he said. “The big thing for me is getting ahead of hitters. I’ve been able to do that, and it’s helped me out a ton.”
Storen has pitched so well, he has made everyone forget his disastrous start to the 2013 season, one that saw him demoted to Class AAA Syracuse in midsummer. He has now made 38 appearances since rejoining the big-league roster last August, during which time he has posted a 1.34 ERA.
“The difference, for me, is everything is down in the zone,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “When a pitcher is throwing every pitch down in the zone, you’ve got an opportunity to get those guys out.”
A few weeks ago, Clippard’s entrance from the right-field corner caused Nationals fans to cringe and hide under their sofas. But since being scored upon in four of his first seven games of the season, Clippard has made 15 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run. His updated season ERA: 1.86.
“I’ve felt good,” he said. “My fastball command has been there, and that’s been key for me. The changeup’s been there, too. With those two things going well right now, I can kind of do what I want to out there.”
Soriano, meanwhile, has battled through a few harrowing ninth innings to post dominant numbers himself: a 1.00 ERA, only 12 hits allowed in 18 innings, 22 of his last 23 save opportunities converted.
Throw in Barrett (one run, eight hits allowed in the first 15 innings of his career), Craig Stammen (six multi-inning scoreless appearances already) and Jerry Blevins (holding left-handed hitters to a .133 batting average and .388 OPS), and the Nationals right now have themselves the majors’ best — and deepest — bullpen.
They also have a bunch of guys who insist they’re less concerned with individual stats than shared glory.
“That’s one mentality I think we’ve always had down in the bullpen, that group mentality,” Storen said. “Picking each other up.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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