Nationals' bullpen needs an intervention -- now

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals' bullpen is on fire. And not in a good way.

On Monday night against the Atlanta Braves, Washington’s relief corps went down in flames yet again, coughing up five runs in the final two innings to help the Nats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in an 11-10 loss.

“We need some help,” said shell-shocked skipper Dusty Baker after his team's latest loss. “We need some help, big time.”

Although bullpen botches have become somewhat routine for a unit that ranks dead last in the NL in ERA (5.11), this latest lapse was surprising because it culminated with Matt Albers on the mound.

All season long, Albers has been the lone bright spot in Washington’s putrid pen. Entering Monday’s action, the 34-year-old veteran ranked sixth among NL relievers in ERA (1.08) and fourth in WHIP (0.76). He’s been so good -- and the rest of the Nats relievers have been so bad -- that he’s even been called upon to close out games. On May 5, he notched his first save, breaking an MLB-record string of 461 straight relief appearances without a save. Nine days later, he notched another one. In the four weeks since then, rookie Koda Glover finally emerged as manager Dusty Baker’s go-to guy at the back end, allowing Albers to settle into the setup role. Finally, it looked like the Nats' bullpen had turned a corner. Until it didn’t.

During a three-game weekend series in which the Nats got swept at home by the Rangers, Washington’s relievers reverted to their early-season form. This past Saturday, Glover surrendered a two-run lead in the ninth, then watched as bullpen mate Shawn Kelley gave up a three-run jack in extras. On Sunday, Baker pulled Max Scherzer in the eighth inning of a 1-1 tie with two runners on, but the pen allowed both to score, as well as two more runs en route to a 5-1 loss. As if that weren’t bad enough, following the game, Glover -- who revealed that he’d hurt his back while showering but didn’t bother to tell anybody -- landed on the disabled list. Just like that, Baker’s bullpen was back to makeshift mode.

On Monday, the closer du jour was Albers, who started off strong. After fellow relievers Jacob Turner and Enny Romero combined to allow two Braves runs in the eighth to trim Washington’s lead to 9-8, Albers came on and got Brandon Phillips on a grounder to end the inning. But a funny thing happened on the way to the four-out save. Despite having issued just four free passes all year, Albers walked two of the first three batters he faced in the ninth, then promptly served up a three-run jack to the very next batter, Tyler Flowers. Even though the Nats made it close by scratching out a run in the bottom of the ninth and putting the tying run on base, there was no getting around the fact that their bullpen betrayed them again.

“We just got to keep grinding,” said Albers, whose Nationals still hold an 8.5-game cushion over the second-place Mets in the NL East. “Luckily, were doing well right now as a team. So, we’re just trying to pick up our end of the bargain. Just keep each other positive, really. You’re going to go through tough stretches. We have a lot of veterans down there who've had big league success, so we know we can do it. Just got to keep fighting, keep grinding.”

For what it’s worth, the powers-that-be in D.C. are leaving no stone unturned in their effort to bolster the bullpen. With exactly seven weeks remaining until the trade deadline, they're expected to make a deal or three involving relievers. In the meantime, they're being proactive in other ways. Last month, highly touted pitching prospect Erick Fedde was converted to a relief role at Double-A Harrisburg in the hopes that he might be able to contribute out of the pen at some point this season. Then on Monday, right around the time that Albers et al were busy forking over the lead, general manager Mike Rizzo selected University of Houston lefty Seth Romero with the club’s first-round draft pick. After the game, Rizzo downplayed the notion that Romero could follow in the footsteps of Brandon Finnegan, the 2014 first-rounder who found himself pitching meaningful postseason innings for the Royals just months after being drafted.

“Well, it’s never happened to me,” Rizzo said. “I’ve never done anything like that, where a drafted player gets to the big leagues the year you draft him. I don’t expect that in this scenario. We’re going to develop him at his own pace and utilize our strong player-development system. And hopefully he’s a guy for us down the road.”

In the meantime, Baker will keep searching for solutions.