Starters are solid, so some Nationals relievers watch and wait

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PHILADELPHIA | With Jordan Zimmermann working in the sixth inning Sunday, left-hander Doug Slaten and right-hander Todd Coffey began to stir in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen. The double-barreled action ended immediately after Zimmermann recorded the third out of the inning.

As soon as Nate Schierholtz swung through Strike 3 and retreated to the San Francisco Giants’ dugout, the two Nationals relievers returned to their seats in right field at Nationals Park. When the seventh inning began, Tyler Clippard was the man summoned to the mound.

Thus is the life of the Nationals relievers not named Clippard, Sean Burnett or Drew Storen these days.

As the Nationals’ starting rotation continues to thrive — and work deeper into games - one of the unintended drawbacks to their success is the possible rust gathering on the arms of relievers such as Slaten, Coffey, Brian Broderick and Henry Rodriguez. Collectively, they had appeared in just one game in the past week heading into Tuesday night’s game, despite the fact that the Nationals, who began a nine-game road trip with a 4-1 loss at Philadelphia on Tuesday night, haven’t had an off day since a rainout in Pittsburgh on April 22.

On Tuesday night, Michael Morse’s seventh-inning homer was the only offense against Phillies southpaw Cole Hamels, who spun a complete-game five-hitter.

“There’s not much you can do about that,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said of the schedule. “But it’s a good problem to have. Like most clubs, if you’re winning the game, there’s a direction you take in your bullpen, if you’re tied there’s a direction you take, if you’re losing there’s a direction so, as deep as our starters have gone, we’ve been tied a lot and we’ve been winning often. A lot of times it’s been Clippard, Burnett, Storen, getting the bulk of the work there.”

It hasn’t forced the Nationals’ relievers to make drastic changes in their preparation, but it has made an impact on the way they go about their daily work.

Often, in addition to doing some throwing in the bullpen during the game even if it’s not in preparation to enter the game, Coffey will throw long toss for roughly 15 minutes in the outfield following the final out. Riggleman said the team could look into some simulated game situations on the team’s upcoming off day next week if the bullpen still is lightly used by then.

Clippard (15 games), Storen (14) and Burnett (12) have been used in nearly twice as many games as Coffey and Broderick, who’ve both appeared just seven times. Coffey’s total is lowered by a disabled list stint that ended nine days ago, but the divide in use is obvious. Even Slaten, who’s appeared in 12 games, has only thrown a total of five innings.

“I just try to stay sharp,” Slaten said. “Whatever it is, extra throws, whatever, I just go by feel, hopefully, and play catch, work on something a little more that’s not quite as sharp. I usually go in to face one guy so [the anticipation] will build up a little sometimes before you get in, but I warm up every other game at least so there’s not much else I can do.

“It can be tough, but I’ve been doing it like this for my whole career.”

In contrast to years past when the Nationals have had to rely heavily on their bullpen, Washington has used its bullpen for fewer innings this year than every team in the majors except the Phillies.

Their starters have gone at least five innings in each game and have turned in six straight quality starts - all good statistics - but it does leave Riggleman, pitching coach Steve McCatty and bullpen coach Jim Lett with a bit more juggling to do.

“That’s all part of what Steve McCatty does,” Riggleman said. “He’s done a great job with these pitchers. You don’t hear much about him, but he’s just really been outstanding with our guys and that’s part of it, keeping on track with the guys who aren’t getting a lot of action.”

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