The workload, innings and stress on the Washington Nationals' starting staff has been carefully examined this season. That's what happens when one of your starters, Stephen Strasburg, is the star in one of the most controversial shutdown plans in baseball.
But what has been less discussed is the reliance they have had on their bullpen arms. Despite having the best rotation ERA in the major leagues, the bullpen has thrown the second-most innings of any relief corps in the National League.
Entering Monday night's divisional showdown with the Atlanta Braves, the bullpen had been called on to throw 375 innings, sixth in the majors and behind only Colorado in the NL.
"You know, my bullpen has been worked a lot," said manager Davey Johnson, who prides himself on being an expert handler of a bullpen to help keep as many pitchers operating as effectively and freshly as possible during a pennant race.
The Nationals' bullpen is exceptionally deep. As the most veteran of the group, Michael Gonzalez, put it on the last road trip "This bullpen, you don't mess with it." And Johnson has used that depth well, putting all of his pitchers into big spots at some point. But that doesn't mean issues don't arise.
"It's hard to lay off your closer," Johnson said. "Like [Sunday], baseball-wise and baseball instincts, I wanted to close with [Drew] Storen. If we had a four-run lead, I wanted the ninth inning for Storen. But [closer Tyler Clippard] has been outstanding. And even as great as Storen was last year, I didn't want to start changing the way we played the games to get where we're at."
In 2011, Storen (the closer before surgery to remove a bone chip cost him more than half of the 2012 season) and Clippard combined to work in 145 games. Both appeared in 45 percent of the team's games. With Storen out for much of this season, Clippard transitioned to the closer role and Sean Burnett into the primary set-up role. Johnson has used them fairly religiously — which the relievers use as a way to gauge their success.
"If we know Clip's thrown three days in a row, we know we're doing pretty good," said right-hander Ryan Mattheus. "If Sean's arm is hurting, we know we're doing pretty good. We know we're winning ballgames.
But before the Nationals played game No. 122, neither had been used in more than 47 percent of the team's games.
"I've got seven guys out there that have been outstanding," Johnson said. "So I've kind of spread it around. That's by design and I don't think anybody is going to throw that much more than they did last year when we came in third. Obviously, if you win more games than you do the previous year, you think your setup guys and closers are going to have a lot more innings. That's not going to happen. You're going to have about the same number."
How he plans to make sure of that with the Nationals heading down the stretch seemingly playoff-bound, Johnson didn't elaborate. One way will be when rosters expand Sept. 1 and the Nationals get an infusion of minor league insurance, including 26-year-old right-hander Christian Garcia who has a 0.75 ERA in 41 games across Double-A and Triple-A.
The other way will be continuing to keep an eye on his top guys, who have no issue with the workload.
"For me, it's the first time I've been pitched in meaningful games this late in the season," Burnett said. "The grind of it goes away. It's fun coming to the ballpark, and hopefully you get in. It's not like years past where you're 15-20 games out where it's kind of a grind.
"Adrenaline's a good drug. Usually it takes care of most fatigue or soreness."
Notes: Lucas Giolito, the first-round pick in the 2012 draft, will see Dr. Lewis Yocum after he had a recurrence of soreness in his right elbow. Giolito missed most of his final high school season with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and was in the process of rehabbing the injury when the Nationals drafted him.
General manager Mike Rizzo said team doctor Wiemi Douoguih examined Giolito recently, after his only professional appearance in the Gulf Coast League, and the team is awaiting Yocum's diagnosis before proceeding. Tommy John surgery is a possibility.
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