Inside the Nationals' endgame identity crisis

Blake Treinen and the rest of the Washington Nationals bullpen are the weak link in the District -- and their problems are starting to become the clubhouse's problems. Patrick McDermott/USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals' bullpen spent the first couple months of the season coughing up leads in games. Recently, they've graduated to coughing up the division lead.

In the space of one week (June 6–12), the first-place Nats lost four games off their division lead, going from a season-high 12.5 games ahead in the National League East to just 8.5 games up. Granted, there are 28 other teams in the league that would kill to have "just" an 8.5-game lead (the Astros are all set, thanks). Still, when you lose a third of your cushion in the blink of an eye, it’s concerning. It’s especially alarming when you consider that Washington’s bullpen, which has been a sore spot from Day 1, has played a key role.

On Saturday against Texas, rookie Koda Glover, who took over as closer in mid-May, blew a 3-1 ninth-inning lead to send it into extras, whereupon Shawn Kelley served up a three-run 11th-inning home run to lose it. The following day, starter Max Scherzer left in the eighth inning of a 1-1 tie with two runners on, then watched as Oliver Perez and Blake Treinen combined to let both inherited runners score, as well as two others in a 5-1 Rangers win. Following the game, Glover landed on the disabled list with back issues, his second DL stint this year. Then on Monday against Atlanta, closer du jour Matt Albers, who has been the team’s most consistent reliever by far, turned a 9-8 lead into an 11-9 defeat when he allowed a three-run jack to Tyler Flowers in the ninth.

For good measure, in Wednesday’s 13-2 loss to the Braves, the bullpen coughed up a half-dozen more runs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the seventh time this season that Washington’s relievers have allowed at least five runs; they did that eight times all of last year. Even though the pen’s performance didn’t cost the Nationals the game (starter Tanner Roark exited with his team already trailing 7-1), it served as yet another reminder of just how brutal the bullpen has been. And just how frustrated folks in and around D.C. are getting.

When rookie Trevor Gott issued a bases-loaded walk -- to the pitcher -- in the seventh on Wednesday, boos rained down from the crowd of 36,000-plus at Nationals Park. When Treinen, who relieved Gott shortly thereafter and proceeded to go double, walk, single, wild pitch, finally managed to get the last out of the inning by punching out Matt Adams, the fans rose to their feet for a sarcastic standing ovation. They’re not the only ones who’ve been traumatized by Washington’s late-inning letdowns.

"I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit alarming to all [of] us," Kelley said.

A 33-year old vet whose 9.9 percent home run rate is the highest among all National League relievers with at least 15 innings pitched, Kelley is one of six hurlers who has walked through manager Dusty Baker’s revolving closer door and recorded at least one save this season. That endgame identity crisis has taken its toll on the bullpen, whose 5.20 ERA is the worst in the NL.

"I think that does throw everything into confusion," Kelley said. "Now you got a little bit of, when that phone rings, who’s it gonna be? Who’s it gonna be tonight? That makes it a little more difficult."

But it’s not Baker’s fault that he doesn’t have a go-to guy at the back end.

Heading into the offseason, the Nationals, who lost trade-deadline acquisition Mark Melancon to free agency, had a gaping hole at closer. But they whiffed on the open market, where the big three of Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman and Melancon signed megadollar deals with the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants, respectively. Washington didn’t make a trade for a closer, either, instead choosing to ship three top pitching prospects to the White Sox in exchange for outfielder Adam Eaton. The hope was that Treinen, Kelley or Glover would step up and seize the role, but in retrospect, that was wishful thinking. Like, the most wishful thinking ever.

Treinen, who thrived in a setup role last year and won the closer gig out of spring training, struggled early before being replaced and currently sports a ghastly 1.88 WHIP. Next up was Kelley, who has never been a full-time closer and couldn’t hold on to the job due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness. After that came Glover; drafted as a closer out of Oklahoma, he walks and talks the part and was even pitching the part. But his recent trip to the DL underscores the fact that when it comes to being a big league closer, he’s an unproven commodity. That goes for everyone else in Baker’s bullpen, too.

"I’m really tired of talking about it," the Nats manager grumbled prior to Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Braves. Normally warm and fuzzy in his pregame news conferences, Baker’s curt response was oozing with frustration. Still, he couldn’t help himself from expounding. "I told you back in March that the save-by-committee approach doesn’t really work. Remember I told y’all that? I honestly feel that a bona fide closer would put everybody in a position where they should be."

For what’s it worth, the three-week period before Glover’s injury backs up Baker’s assertion. From May 21 (the day that the 24-year old righty took over as closer) through June 9 (the day before he got hurt), Washington’s relievers posted a 2.70 ERA that was fifth best in the majors over that stretch. They converted 8 of 9 save chances, including six by Glover, the last of which he punctuated by barking at L.A. slugger Yasiel Puig after fanning him to end the game, nearly inciting a brawl at Dodger Stadium.

Buoyed by the bullpen’s bravado -- not to mention a stout starting rotation and a high-powered offense that leads the NL in average, home runs and scoring -- the East leaders went 7-2 on a West Coast road trip during which they played as well as they have all season. The swag has since subsided, replaced by a sense of doubt that’s permeating every nook and cranny of Nats Park.

"There’s a lot of uneasiness when we get to the back end of the game right now, amongst everybody," Kelley said. "Baseball’s all about momentum. So when it starts to be like, 'OK, who’s coming now,' there starts to be this general uneasiness throughout the whole stadium. You can feel it. You sense that. The other team senses that."

The Nationals’ rotation is feeling it too. Because of the pen’s problems and Baker’s justifiable jitters about using his relievers, Washington’s starters have been working overtime.

"It’s tough," Stephen Strasburg said. He and fellow starters Scherzer, Roark and Gio Gonzalez are the top four in the NL in pitches per start, and all four are among the top 10 in that category leaguewide. "We have a lot of young guys in the bullpen right now. I think everybody in here, we’re all pulling for them, we all believe in them. I just hope that they worry about what goes on in the clubhouse and not what’s said outside the clubhouse."

What’s being said outside the clubhouse is that the Nats need help. That sometime between now and the July 31 trade deadline, general manager Mike Rizzo needs to swing a deal for at least one proven late-inning guy, if not more. That without adding relief help (regardless of if and when Glover returns to form), Washington’s odds of winning its first-ever playoff series are roughly equivalent to the odds of Bryce Harper's hair ever not looking perfect. Heck, in a divisional era where only three teams with bullpen ERAs above 5.00 have ever made the playoffs, the NL East title isn’t even a sure thing right now.

"Everybody knows what we need," Baker said. "You write about it every day. Other people read it, too. It’s a tough situation, and I know Riz is addressing it."

The problem is, more than six weeks away from the trade deadline, the market isn’t fully formed yet. Clubs that currently look more like sellers could end up being buyers by the end of July, and vice versa. As for floundering teams that are in no-doubt dump mode, they’d likely ask for a king’s ransom from anyone desperate enough to deal this early in the process. In other words, if bullpen help is headed to the District, it’s probably not happening anytime in the immediate future.

In the meantime, Baker has a plan.

"Score more runs," the Nats skipper said. "That’s the only thing you can do."