Aug 1, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
The Nationals’ bullpen, as dominant a unit as there has been in baseball through much of the season, has suddenly and surprisingly fallen onto hard times.
And Thursday night’s performance in a 10-4 loss to the Phillies was only the latest example.
Asked to keep the game within striking distance after Gio Gonzalez lasted only 3 2/3 innings, the Nationals’ relief corps proceeded to give up five runs the rest of the way (two surrendered by Jerry Blevins, three by Craig Stammen in the eighth before a scoreless ninth).
Blevins’ struggles have become commonplace — over his last 13 2/3 innings, the left-hander has allowed 13 earned runs while putting 24 men on base — but Stammen’s off night was more surprising, considering the fact he hadn’t pitched at all in nine days.
“The issue with Stammer … he hasn’t pitched in a while,” manager Matt Williams said. “So the first inning was a little rusty, I think. The second inning, he settled in fine. Blev just, he got the first lefty out, couldn’t get the second one. Then he had a couple lapses out there with guys on base that allowed them to get the guy to third base, then he gave up that run.”
Whatever the reason, Thursday’s performance was emblematic of a bullpen that has fallen into a collective funk for the first time all season.
Two weeks ago, Nationals relievers sported a combined 2.71 ERA, second-best in the majors. But over their last 12 games, they have given up 21 runs (18 earned) and 40 hits in 32 2/3 innings, seeing their season ERA rise to 2.95, now fourth-best in the league.
One potential issue: Overuse by the three back-end right-handers. Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen each needed days off this week to rest their arms, with Soriano getting back-to-back days following his blown save in Miami on Monday.
Five different Nationals relievers have appeared in at least 40 games so far this season: the aforementioned trio, plus Blevins and rookie Aaron Barrett. All five are on pace for at least 60 appearances by season’s end, with Blevins (70) and Clippard (73) headed for the most of the group.
“I don’t think they’re worn down,” Williams said. “I don’t think their innings are excessive or anything like that. I think it’s just one of those little ruts. You can get out of those ruts, too. As quickly as you can get in them, you can get out of them.”
Maybe so, but there’s a reason the Nationals were making inquiries to other clubs about potential relievers before Thursday’s trade deadline.
General manager Mike Rizzo wasn’t able to pull off any deals, but don’t be surprised if he continues the search into August, attempting to acquire a reliever who passes through waivers.
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