- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Reporters peppered Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams before Monday night’s rainout at Nationals Park with questions about the absence of important key players.

They asked about Doug Fister, a 16-game winner last season, on the disabled list with right forearm tightness. They asked about Stephen Strasburg, just put on the DL with neck tightness. They asked about center fielder Denard Span, the leadoff engine that drives the offense, who is day to day with a sore right knee.

And, of course, there was the perfunctory question about the team’s best player last season, Anthony Rendon, now on a minor-league rehabilitation assignment, yet to play a major-league game this year because of a strained left oblique and sprained ligament in his left knee.

Add to it left fielder Jayson Werth, out possibly until September with a broken left wrist, and you have an impressive list of walking wounded. Yet the Nationals have managed to put a bad start to the season behind them thanks to an 18-9 record in the month of May and nine consecutive series wins that catapulted them to first place in the National League East.

That came to a crashing halt over the weekend in Cincinnati, as the Reds swept the Nationals in three games. The bullpen collapsed, resulting in the shuttle running again from Washington to Triple-A Syracuse, with Matt Grace sent down and Felipo Rivero brought in.

The sweep may have illustrated that among all of the Nationals players missing in action — including Rendon, who finished fifth in NL MVP voting last season — the one they miss the most is the 31-year-old right hander from Versailles, Ohio, who wasn’t drafted until the 12th round in 2005.

Craig Stammen may be the most valuable loss of all. He may wind up being the one that hurts the most.

Stammen underwent surgery in April for a torn flexor muscle in his right arm and is expected to be out for the rest of the year. He had made five appearances up to that point, allowing no runs and just two hits with three walks over four innings.

Among all the big names that have been sidelined for Washington so far this year, Stammen’s absence was lost, but it was glaring in Cincinnati.

“Any time you lose somebody like Craig, it’s not good for your team,” Williams said. “He provides so many different things. He has the ability to give you length, he can pitch late into a game. He can be that seventh-inning guy. It’s always a blow to a team when you lose somebody of that caliber.”

The bullpen is the most unpredictable part of any major league roster. It changes over the course of a season, as live arms get figured out or wear out. It is a continuous work in progress as the year goes on. The Nationals’ bullpen really didn’t come together in 2012 until someone who wasn’t even on the Opening Day roster, left-hander Mike Gonzalez, arrived in June after he was signed to a minor-league deal in May.

“Yes, it is a little interchangeable depending on who you have,” Williams said. “Sometimes the bullpen is fairly set for their roles, but sometimes you have to make adjustments.”

Right or wrong, the Nationals planned the adjustments they would have to make with the absence of eighth-inning ace Tyler Clippard, traded to Oakland for infielder Yunel Escobar. They weren’t ready for life without Stammen, the one constant they could rely on in the bullpen since 2010.

Stammen has done it all out of the bullpen, from long relief to short stints, pitching more than 242 innings — the most in the major leagues among relievers — from 2012 to 2014, with a 2.93 ERA to show for it. He has been the anchor of the bullpen, the one who has gotten it through the tough, unpredictable times.

Tanner Roark was the candidate to fill that role, but he’s been thrust into starting situations because of injuries to Fister and now Strasburg. It could be Blake Treinen, but he has been inconsistent.

“Guys have stepped in and helped us win games,” Williams said. “But you never want to lose somebody like Craig, though.”

“Somebody like Craig” is the somebody that so far, on a team deep with talent that has survived the loss of all-star players, there has been no replacement.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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