SAN FRANCISCO — Late Sunday afternoon, as the Nationals were trying to get the final outs of a 13-4 debacle against the San Diego Padres, right-hander Drew Storen was summoned from the Washington bullpen to pitch the ninth inning.
Two nights earlier, Storen saved the Nationals' 6-5 victory by pitching a tense 10th inning. And here he was in mop-up duty.
It was the latest example of how the Nationals' bullpen may be a bit off-kilter as they pass the quarter mark of the 2013 season. The personnel is exactly the same as it was when the Nationals opened the season, but the way they've been used hasn't always been consistent — and neither has the performance.
"Sometimes it takes time," manager Davey Johnson said Sunday. "We've got a little imbalanced situation out there, but I think they've done really good so far, all things considered."
To be sure, the Nationals, at 23-21 entering Monday, have other issues than their bullpen. And their performance has been adequate, if perhaps not as exceptional as was hoped at the outset of the season.
But the divide this season, it seems, between Johnson's 'A' bullpen and his 'B' one is in their usage. When the Nationals' starters pitch deep into ballgames, Johnson has gone with his 'A' relievers. In other instances, he's gone with the 'B' group. The problem arises when the 'A' group gets used often, or at least far more regularly, and the others lie in wait. That can leave the 'B' group with a significant gap between appearances.
When Johnson tabbed lefty long man Zach Duke to start Monday night against the San Francisco Giants in place of Ross Detwiler while Detwiler nurses a strained right oblique muscle, it also threw things off a bit.
Johnson did not want to start Craig Stammen, he said, because Stammen's success in his role as a righty who can not only pitch multiple innings but also excel in high-leverage situations is far too valuable for the Nationals to mess with. So when Dan Haren was chased after five innings Sunday, Johnson turned to Henry Rodriguez, likely preferring to save Stammen in case he needed him to follow Duke on Monday.
Rodriguez hadn't appeared in a game in eight days, and pitched one of the most eventful and exhausting scoreless innings of the season with three stolen bases, a walk, an error and a wild pitch. At that point, the Nationals were down by five. This season, excepting Duke, Rodriguez has pitched in the lowest-pressure situations of any reliever on the Nationals' roster.
One inning later, with the Nationals having made it a three-run game, Johnson called on Ryan Mattheus. He had pitched only once in the previous eight days. His five-run inning not only blew the game back open, but required him to throw 39 pitches. The ninth couldn't be his, and it couldn't be Rodriguez's, Duke's or Stammen's. That left Storen, Tyler Clippard and closer Rafael Soriano.
Mattheus refused to use a lack of work as an excuse, but he acknowledged his outing was detrimental even beyond the score.
"I've been up the last two nights in the bullpen so I should definitely be sharp," Mattheus said. "Not getting in a game isn't an excuse. I've still got to get the job done. I pretty much knew that was going to be my spot. I was ready. I just didn't execute once I was out there.
"We had to use an extra guy today because I couldn't get the job done. That's not good for the team."
The Nationals' options to try to fit the puzzle pieces together a little better will depend on the severity of Detwiler's injury. The hope is that the left-hander will miss just one start and the Nationals won't make a roster move in the meantime. If the idea is simply to add a left-hander, their options may not be all that appetizing, either. J.C. Romero is on the disabled list at Triple-A, but Fernando Abad has pitched well for Syracuse, and veteran Bill Bray is working his way back to form at Double-A.
"We've just got to be a little bit better," Johnson said Sunday.
"We know what we're capable of," Mattheus added. "We know some things have to change. We've got to start playing better baseball."
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