BALTIMORE -- If a dumpster fire and a train wreck had a baby, it’d be the Washington Nationals' bullpen.
Dusty Baker is well aware of this, which might have had something to do with the Nats' skipper allowing his ace to face Baltimore Orioles star Adam Jones in the eighth inning. To be clear, Max Scherzer had no earthly business facing Adam Jones in the eighth inning.
Sure, the Nats' ace was dominant early. Through five innings, Scherzer -- who already has two no-hitters on his resume -- had another no-no going. Over those same five frames, he tallied eight punchouts, six of them coming on a slider that was filthier than Oscar the Grouch. But following a hard-earned seven-pitch strikeout of J.J. Hardy that ended the fifth, Scherzer was a fraction of his earlier self.
In the sixth inning, the first three Birds batters all hit balls that left the bat at 90-plus miles an hour, including Seth Smith, who drilled a homer to right-center that ended the no-hit bid and tied the game at 1-all. In the seventh, even though Scherzer managed to not allow a run, Baltimore’s Chris Davis (single), Trey Mancini (lineout) and Jonathan Schoop (double) all hit screamers that featured triple-digit exit velocity.
By the time Jones stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, right after Smith launched a 99-mph rocket to center for the second out, Scherzer had already thrown 108 pitches. And now he was about to face a guy who “gives him the blues,” as Baker said ruefully before the game: Entering Tuesday, Jones was a .480 lifetime hitter against the two-time Cy Young winner with three home runs in 25 at-bats and an Xbox-ish 1.440 OPS. And yet Baker left his ace out there.
In the interest of full disclosure, the bases were empty with two outs, and the Nats were up 4-1 at this point following a three-run pinch-hit jack by Adam Lind in the top of the eighth.
“If there had been somebody on base, he wouldn’t have faced Jones,” Baker said of Scherzer. “But you’ve got to get your nemesis out sometime. He had gotten him out pretty good tonight. Certainly that’s not what cost us the game, because he got the next couple guys out.”
True enough. But it’s hard not to think that, if this were 2016, Baker would’ve lifted Scherzer and his 108 pitches right then and there. Hard not to think that if this were last year, when the Washington bullpen was actually good at its job and finished second in the majors in ERA, the Nats' skipper would’ve yanked his ace quicker than a dentist yanks a decaying tooth. Instead, he allowed Scherzer to stay in, which in turn allowed Jones to go yard on the very next pitch and make it a 4-2 game. But wait, there’s more.
Immediately after the Jones jack, Baker paid a visit to the mound to potentially relieve Scherzer of his duties, whereupon the hurler told his manager (and I’m paraphrasing here): I got it. I gee-golly got it. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that Scherzer has lobbied for Baker to leave him in a game. Not the first time he’s dropped an F-, um, I mean, a G-bomb. It’s also worth noting that studs who earn $30 million a year (like Scherzer) typically get the benefit of the doubt from their skippers in situations like this. Especially when they drop G-bombs. Not that it was Scherzer’s words that did the trick.
“It was a look,” Baker said. “I go by how you look in your eyes and how you look in your face. Sometimes you see tiredness. Sometimes you see fear. And sometimes you see determination. And I saw determination, and that was good enough for me.”
Then again, given the sorry state of the Nats’ bullpen, it’s not like he needed a whole lot of convincing.
Like Baker said, leaving Scherzer in to face Jones, as well as the next guy (Manny Machado, for the record, who flied out to left) isn’t what cost his team the game. What did cost Washington the game -- a contest that Baltimore ultimately won 5-4 in 12 innings -- was a bullpen that’s in absolute shambles.
Opening Day closer Blake Treinen, who was brand new to the role, lasted all of about two weeks before being demoted and entered this week with an ERA north of nine. Veteran setup man Shawn Kelley replaced Treinen, but has given up five homers in 10 innings and is currently on the disabled list with a lower-back strain. Rookie Koda Glover, who carries the closer-of-the-future tag, was in the mix, too, but has since landed on the DL with a hip problem. Next was Enny Romero, who blew the Nats' two-run lead in the ninth on Tuesday and boasts a career ERA of five-plus, followed by Matt Albers, a 34-year-old journeyman who prior to picking up his first-ever save last week had made a major-league-record 460 relief appearances without one. If you’re scoring at home, that’s five different closers that the Nats have already used in barely more than a month. And that coyote ugly picture doesn’t even include Joe Blanton, who was supposed to be a dependable setup type but has been serving up gopher balls as if his contract has an incentive for serving up gopher balls (6 HRs in 12 IPs).
The fact that the Nats’ bullpen has issues should come as no surprise. Not after an offseason in which Washington GM Mike Rizzo whiffed on big-name free-agent closers such as Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman and former National Mark Melancon. Not after they failed to make a trade for a proven back-end arm like White Sox closer David Robertson or Tampa Bay's Alex Colome (both of whom were linked to the Nats this winter). What does come as a surprise is just how grave those issues are. The thinking was that between Treinen, Kelley and Glover, somebody would rise to the top and everything would be hunky-dory. But clearly, that thinking was wishful.
Even if Kelly or Glover returns from the DL and is able to seize the closer gig, Baker’s beleaguered bullpen -- which currently carries an NL-worst 5.47 ERA -- still has more holes than a Whack-a-Mole factory. As it stands right now, it’s hard to imagine those holes being filled without making some kind of trade. Of course, acquiring relievers is nothing new for the Nats.
In 2015, they traded for Jonathan Papelbon because they weren’t happy with Drew Storen as their closer. In 2016, when it became clear that Papelbon wasn’t working out, they picked up Melancon. Both those deals happened in late July, right before the trade deadline. Given how weak the NL East has looked so far (Washington is currently 4½ games up on the Mets), it’s possible that Rizzo could once again wait until July to pull the trigger. Then again, given how bad the Nats’ pen has been, waiting until July might not be an option.
Because by then, the spawn of dumpster fire and train wreck might have already grown out of control.