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With Jonathan Papelbon back, Nats' bullpen looking just fine, thanks

WASHINGTON -- With Jonathan Papelbon mended and missing bats, maybe the Washington Nationals don’t need bullpen help after all.

In Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, Papelbon came on to work the ninth inning and promptly struck out the side. While that might not sound like a big deal for a big league closer, it is for Papelbon.

Over the past few seasons, the 35-year-old reliever’s average fastball velocity has fallen more dramatically than Manu Ginobili trying to draw a charge, from a high of 94.8 mph in 2011 to 90.8 this season. In related news, Papelbon’s strikeout rate is down, too. Two years after posting a career-high 12.2 K’s per nine innings in 2011, his whiff rate had plummeted to 8.3. This season, prior to hitting the disabled list June 13 with a strained intercostal muscle, he fanned just 19 hitters in 24⅔ innings for a conspicuously un-closer-like K rate of 6.9.

Not that strikeouts are everything, but when your job requirements include A) stranding inherited runners and B) escaping self-induced jams with little to no damage, well ... punchouts matter. Although Papelbon was by no means bad the first couple of months this season, and although the Nats currently rank second in the National League in relief ERA, their closer’s lack of dominance created the narrative that come the trade deadline, Washington would almost certainly be in the market for back-end bullpen help (see: Miller, Andrew; Chapman, Aroldis). Or that setup man Shawn Kelley -- who filled in while Papelbon was on the shelf -- might serve the team better as its closer.

But given how Papelbon has pitched since coming off the DL, you could argue that the Nats' pen is just fine, thanks.

"He's attacking with his fastball and going right at people," said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who went 2-for-3 with a homer Wednesday.

Of course, it's a little easier to do that when the gas has a more giddy-up. In two outings since rejoining the team, Papelbon’s average fastball velocity sits at 91.6 mph, up from 90.7 prior to the injury. He’s missing a lot more bats, fanning five in two innings. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, Wednesday marked the first time since May 18, 2015, that Papelbon got all three outs of a save via strikeout, a span of 69 appearances. Yes, it’s a small sample size, and yes, the Brewers are profoundly punchout-prone (25.3 percent K rate, highest in MLB), but still, there’s no denying that Papelbon looks different lately.

“He's stronger,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “It's almost like getting a new player back. Those couple weeks [without Papelbon], we didn't like it, but it seems like it helped him get his strength back. You can tell by his location that he’s sharp and he’s strong.”

That strength, if it continues into the second half of the season, could turn what seems to be Washington’s biggest weakness into a weapon.

“He pounds it and gets guys out,” Bryce Harper said of Papelbon. “If he can do that, then we'll win a lot of ballgames.”