WASHINGTON -- This was supposed to be the year that the Washington Nationals didn't have to worry about their bullpen. Funny how things work out.
On Tuesday night, Washington blew an opportunity for a key doubleheader sweep against the division rival Atlanta Braves when reliever Kelvin Herrera coughed up a pair of ninth-inning runs that allowed Atlanta to win 3-1 and salvage a split. As if that weren't bad enough, Herrera exited the game because of shoulder tightness and was scheduled for an MRI on Wednesday. It's the latest in a string of surprising blows for a bullpen that suddenly finds itself staggering.
Coming out of spring training, with 2017 trade deadline acquisitions Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler back for another season and anchoring the back end, the Nats' pen was supposed to be a strength. As if that weren't enough, general manager Mike Rizzo went out and acquired Herrera, the Kansas City Royals ' closer, in a surprisingly early mid-June trade that seemed to give Washington an embarrassment of relief riches. But things haven't gone according to plan.
It all started with Doolittle. An All-Star selection who hasn't walked anyone since early April, his lights-out first half (22 saves, 0.54 WHIP) ended on a sour note when he landed on the disabled list because of a foot injury in early July. A few weeks later, things got weird when Rizzo -- in what appeared to be an attempt to titrate clubhouse chemistry -- shipped Kintzler to the Cubs at the trade deadline in return a low-level pitching prospect. The very next day, it got even weirder when veteran righty Shawn Kelley, who had thrown a tantrum on the mound the night before, was shockingly designated for assignment. Four days after that, Kelley was traded to the Oakland Athletics for cash (international bonus pool money, technically), and two days after that (Tuesday morning), the Nationals saw fit to sign Cardinals castoff Greg Holland, who had posted an ERA just south of 8.00 and a WHIP north of 2.00 in St. Louis.
So yeah, things got weird.
For the record, Holland was effective in his D.C. debut, pitching a scoreless seventh inning during Washington's 8-3 win over Atlanta in the opener Tuesday. It's also worth noting that while Herrera's shaky outing contributed to the Nats dropping the nightcap, an offense that managed only one run and wasted a solid Max Scherzer performance was just as much to blame.
"It would have been nice to have both [games], especially the way that Max threw the ball," said catcher Matt Wieters, whose scorching liner to third base in the bottom of the ninth resulted in a game-ending double play. "He threw the ball great, but we can't change that now."
What the Nationals can change is their standing in the NL East, but it is not going to be easy. Following Tuesday's split with Atlanta, they're six games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies with fewer than 50 games left. Fourteen of those contests will come against the Phillies and Braves, the two teams ahead of Washington in the NL East. Another seven games will come against the Central-leading Cubs, owners of the best record in the National League.
Needless to say, if the Nats are going to overcome their current deficit, it's going to take a total team effort. That includes getting lockdown innings from a patchwork bullpen that's missing Doolittle, who still doesn't have any kind of timetable for a return. A bullpen that, depending on the extent of Herrera's shoulder issues, might be forced to turn to the 37-year-old Madson as its interim closer. A bullpen that was supposed to be a strength but is suddenly a shell of its Opening Day self. For now, relief issues or no relief issues, Davey Martinez is taking it one game at a time.
"We got a game tomorrow against the team that's in front of us, so we'll worry about tomorrow," the Nats' manager said. "We win tomorrow, and then we go from there. That's the premise of our every day. I tell them every day, stay in the here and now. Don't get ahead of ourselves."
As for getting ahead of their opponents, that's both important and doable. Given the current state of the Nationals' bullpen, it's the staying ahead that might prove tricky.