An interesting thing happened as the Nationals were en route to a 5-2 win over the San Francisco Giants on Sunday afternoon.
They got closer to defining roles in their previously-undefined bullpen.
In a save situation with left-hander Sean Burnett having come on for the final out of the eighth inning and a right-hander (Miguel Tejada) due up first but then followed by two left-handers (Mike Fontentot and Nate Schierholtz) in the ninth, many expected Burnett to stay in for the four-out save opportunity.
But when the inning began, Drew Storen came trotting in from the bullpen — the first time that Nationals manager Jim Riggleman was clearly not playing the matchups.
“I think everybody in the community wants Drew to be the closer,” Riggleman said, careful not to anoint him so himself. “And I want that, but he’s 23 years old and I don’t want him to run out there four days in a row or sometimes even three days in a row. I always have to have the option of Burnett and (Tyler) Clippard. The more comfortable I get that we’re going to be able to turn it over to Drew, it gives me the option to use Bernie earlier in the game.”
Burnett was summoned to take the ball from Clippard after the right-hander doled out 1 2/3 innings of hitless relief in the seventh and eighth and Burnett got the final out of the eighth on two pitches. The Nationals also made it a three-run game with a two-run single by Ivan Rodriguez in the bottom of the eighth for a little breathing room but Riggleman said, regardless, Storen was coming in for the ninth.
For a team that broke from spring training telling anyone and everyone that they did not have a defined closer, that they were simply going to play the matchups and use Burnett when the situation called for a lefty and Storen when it called for a righty, they seem closer now to roles than they did four weeks ago.
After a rough spring training for Storen — and one where Burnett was nearly unhittable — the early save chances seemed to be going to Burnett. The script has since flipped a bit. The Nationals have had eight saves this season. The first three went to Burnett but the final five have been Storen’s.
While Riggleman has stayed true to form until Sunday in, for the most part, playing the matchups and using each where the situation seemed to call for it, their performances have also dictated their use to some extent.
For Burnett, before his first blown save on Arpil 15 — a game the Nationals won in extra innings — he had allowed just one earned run and five hits in 6 2/3 innings of work. Seventy-two percent of the 103 pitches he threw were strikes and he’d earned three saves in the team’s first 10 games in the process.
Since that first blown save, though, he’s allowed nine hits and six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings of work — the bulk of those gaudy numbers coming Wednesday night in a blown save against the Mets.
Meanwhile, since Storen’s first save he’s yet to allow an earned run in 6 2/3 innings has given up just four hits and walked only one. On the season he has also been impressive, allowing just one earned run in 15 innings pitched.
To be honest, neither has performed poorly. Burnett’s rough outing on Wednesday was really the first time either reliever truly struggled but with Sunday as the latest evidence, it seems that Storen is getting closer to becoming this team’s closer more and more each day.
As of now, things are still undefined. That’s just fine with them but we’ll see how long it lasts.
“It gets to a point late in the game where we’re all on our toes,” Storen said. “That helps because it makes you ready. It’s kind of nice.”