Closer or no closer, Nationals bullpen still has issues

Blake Treinen was the third Nationals pitcher in the seventh inning Thursday as the bullpen again faltered. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON -- Lipstick or no lipstick, a pig is still a pig. And right now, the Washington Nationals' bullpen, which coughed up a 4-2 loss Thursday, is 100 percent USDA pork.

Wednesday night, when manager Dusty Baker revealed Koda Glover would be his team’s closer going forward, it seemed like major progress. Even though the Nationals entered Thursday with a stranglehold on the NL East (7.5 games up on second-place Atlanta), their early success has come in spite of a bullpen that has been among the worst in baseball. Entering Thursday’s series finale against a struggling Mariners squad, Washington relievers ranked last in the majors in ERA (5.27) and batting average against (.283) and next-to-last in the NL in home run rate (4.0 percent). A big reason for those failures was the lack of a true closer.

Following an offseason in which they whiffed in the free-agent closer market, the Nats entered spring training with the back end of the pen up for grabs. Blake Treinen, who excelled in setup duty last year but lacked closer experience, won the job but struggled out of the gate and was demoted in due haste.

Up next was Shawn Kelley, who picked up three saves before landing on the disabled list with a calf strain. Then came Glover, a rookie, who saved two games before following Kelley to the DL with a hip injury. The ensuing save went to Enny Romero, who was a long shot to even make the team this year, and the one after that went to 34-year-old Matt Albers, who in the process ended his record-setting string of 461 relief appearances without a save on his resume.

If you’re keeping scoring at home, you’re probably pretty confused. And rightfully so.

The move to officially install Glover as closer was meant to alleviate that confusion and stabilize Washington’s wobbly bullpen. But first, the Nationals actually have to succeed in handing off a lead to Glover. On Thursday, in their first chance, they failed. Miserably.

Things in the eventual 4-2 defeat started out promising enough. Playing in front of a sparse crowd of 18,881 (and no, it wasn’t Palindrome Day at Nats Park) in a game that was moved up from 4:05 to 12:05 to avoid impending Washington weather, the Nationals took a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning thanks to an Anthony Rendon homer, his fourth bomb in three games. At that point, all signs pointed to a save situation. But righty Jacob Turner, who entered the game with one out in the sixth after starter Gio Gonzalez allowed a pair of singles, allowed a three-run jack to Nelson Cruz, the very first batter he faced. In the next inning, lefty Matt Grace, who entered the game with one out in the seventh after Turner allowed a pair of singles, allowed an RBI single to Robinson Cano, the very first batter he faced. (Anybody see a pattern?)

On the one hand, it’s hard to fault Turner and Grace. After all, one's a rookie, the other's a replacement-level journeyman, and they got beat by Cruz and Cano, two of the most dangerous hitters in the game. On the other hand ... one's a rookie and the other is a replacement-level journeyman, which is kind of the problem.

Whether or not Glover ends up succeeding at his new gig, the rest of the Nationals bullpen is still a mess. Even though Kelley has returned from the DL, he has been a shadow of the dominant setup man he was last year (six HRs allowed in 13 2/3 innings). Ditto for ex-Dodger Joe Blanton (six HRs in 12 1/3 IP). Treinen has struggled with command and has a WHIP that looks more like an ERA (2.11). Southpaw Sammy Solis, who last year was instrumental to a bullpen that ranked second in the majors in ERA, has been hurt most of the year. Just about the only bright spot has been Albers, who struck out the side in the eighth on Thursday. But by then, the damage had already been done. For the record, that has been a recurring theme.

As much as folks would like to believe that closer is the only sore spot in the bullpen and that Glover ascending to the throne solves everything (assuming he succeeds in the role, which is hardly a given), that’s simply not the case. Sure, Washington’s relievers have been bad in the ninth inning, with a 5.12 ERA that ranks 22nd in the majors. But they’ve been even worse in the earlier innings, posting a combined 5.38 ERA in the seventh and eighth (28th). Yes, the Nats’ nine blown saves are tied for most in the NL, but six of those have come before the ninth, including Thursday’s debacle against a Mariners lineup that hadn't scored more than one run in a game since May 18.

We’ll never know what would’ve happened if the Nationals had been able to preserve the lead and hand Glover a save opportunity on his first day as official closer. Maybe he would’ve choked. Maybe he would’ve gone 1-2-3. Maybe he would’ve done something in between, making things interesting but still managing to pick up the save.

It sure would’ve been nice to find out.