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The Nationals are still trying to figure out their left-handed relief

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NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals’ position in the playoff picture is such that with 17 games remaining on their schedule they’re stuck somewhere between trying to answer questions for the future and trying to win games.

In many ways, the two goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The Nationals, for example, wanted to give Tanner Roark a chance to start, in part to see what he could do as a potential rotation candidate in 2014. But he’s also been exceptional since earning his first major league call-up and may well give them the best chance to win from the No. 5 spot in their rotation.

When it comes to the left side of their bullpen, the Nationals are in a similar situation. 

An issue from the outset of the season, when they carried just one left-hander in the bullpen in Zach Duke — a former starter who was primarily a long reliever, the Nationals are still looking to fill the void left by the three left-handers who performed so well for them in 2012: Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez. 

The question manager Davey Johnson has been asked recently is simple: with Ian Krol, Fernando Abad and Xavier Cedeno on the roster right now, is the personnel to do that here already?

“Well, a lot of them are young and haven’t passed the test under the pressure,” Johnson said Wednesday. “There’ve been signs they could do it. And then there’s been signs they don’t have the command. I like some of the talent we have out there. But they haven’t done enough for me right now to bring them in with a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded to face a lefty.

“We’re going to be giving them that opportunity the rest of the way. Because you have to have both sides in the ‘pen if you want to win and win a lot. You can’t have any cracks in the dam. Because the opponent has a way of attacking that.”

With that in mind, Johnson pulled Dan Haren at 86 pitches after six innings on a steamy night on Wednesday. The move was partly because of the conditions and the fact that he didn’t want his veteran, who’d allowed only one hit, to be in a position to lose the game. And it was partly because with two left-handed batters coming up, Johnson had a chance to give a young pitcher an opportunity.

He summoned Cedeno, who earned rave reviews from Triple-A manager Tony Beasley, and was thrilled with the way Cedeno attacked Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda in a one-run game. 

“I wanted to get a look at Cedeno in a tough situation against some left-handers,” Johnson said. “Tony Beasley said he pitched better than Krol down there for him and he liked the way he attacked left-handers and I wanted to see it.

“I hadn’t seen it yet up here. He did a great job. I liked the way he went after the first two guys. He’ll get more work. That was a big thing in the ballgame.”

The Nationals claimed Cedeno off waivers from the Houston Astros earlier this season and called him up a few times without pitching him. He made his fourth appearance of the season for them on Wednesday night.

The 27-year-old Cedeno pitched in 39 games for Triple-A Syracuse this season, working to a 1.39 ERA. He struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings, but struggled with his command as well, issuing 4.2 walks per nine.

The Nationals like Krol, a young left-hander acquired as the player to be named in the Michael Morse trade, but he and Abad have had their moments of struggle this season. Johnson has pointed out on numerous occasions this year how much of an issue it has been for him that the left side of his bullpen has not been as effective as in years past.

As they look toward 2014, the Nationals may well be in the market for some more veteran left-handed relief. They tried for J.P. Howell this past offseason, but the California native took a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers instead. He’ll be a free agent again this winter. The current free agent crop doesn’t have too many names that jump off the page, though Oliver Perez and Matt Thornton may be two of the more intriguing ones. 

Perhaps, though, the Nationals could find something in these final few weeks. Perhaps Cedeno, or Krol or Abad, could be a solution for them. One thing is certain: Johnson will give them a chance to prove that in the final two weeks of the season, particularly Cedeno.

“(Beasley) liked the way he attacked left-handers (in the minor leagues),” Johnson said. “He said he may have a higher ceiling but he’s not quite there yet. He’s still quite young. That was big. First time I brought a left-hander in and he really looked good.”

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About the Author
Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.

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