- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

DENVER | The method by which the Washington Nationals‘ bullpen has established itself as one of the strengths of the team includes a season’s worth of injuries, trades, failed auditions, surprising call-ups and general mixes-and-matches.

But there the Nationals’ relief corps is, holding the best ERA in the major leagues since the All-Star break.

At the start of the season, the unit was supposed to be a strength for the team. But that statistic is nevertheless surprising because the group has undergone almost a complete makeover in the course of the last two months. Chad Cordero, who saved 113 games over the last three seasons for Washington, is out for the season with a shoulder injury and might not be back with the Nationals next year. Also gone is Jon Rauch, the setup man-turned-closer who departed last month in a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In light of all that, the Nationals’ six-man bullpen is functioning as well now as it has all season. In fact, the emergence of several young relievers could set Washington up for the future as well as it was before the loss of Cordero and Rauch.

“I just think everybody is starting to find their groove,” said left-hander Charlie Manning, who hasn’t allowed a run in 13 of his last 14 appearances. “We lost Rauch, and everybody knew we had to step up. … We’re just trying to prove to everybody we’re not that bad.”

Manning and right-hander Steven Shell have been perhaps the two biggest pieces of the new-look bullpen’s success. Neither had pitched in the majors before this season, but both have proved to be more versatile than they originally were asked to be when called up.

The 29-year-old Manning became the team’s situational left-hander in May shortly after Ray King was released but has been mostly effective against right-handed batters as well. He has actually faced more righties (60) than lefties (49), and though he’s unintentionally walked 11 right-handers, they’re hitting just .217 against him.

Manning, of course, has been even better against left-handers, allowing a .178 average and .224 on-base percentage, and manager Manny Acta said his role still will be largely situational. But Manning has taken some encouragement out of proving he can handle the occasional larger assignment.

“If you’re doing your job, whatever the score is, you go out there and prove you can throw, you’ll get more innings,” Manning said.

Another call-up from Class AAA Columbus, Shell was brought to Washington to be a long reliever but has seen that role expand recently. He has earned a hold in two of his last four appearances, protecting a lead by not allowing a run in either case.

“I’m not afraid now to use him in any situation, because I don’t even remember the last time he got roughed up,” Acta said. “He throws strikes, which is something that I like. If you get hit, you get hit. But by throwing strikes, you have a better chance of getting people out. So I’m not afraid of putting him out there whether we’re behind, tied or ahead.”

The two have established themselves at the same time Jesus Colome has rebounded from a season-long funk. He has given up one earned run in his last 10 appearances, re-establishing himself as one of the Nationals’ best power arms.

From there, the construction of the bullpen gets somewhat uncertain. Acta has alternated between Luis Ayala and Saul Rivera in the eighth inning, and Joel Hanrahan has had little time to assert himself in the closer’s role. If those three perform in their adjusted roles, however, Washington’s bullpen would be in impressive shape for the future; Ayala is a free agent after the season, but the other five pitchers are all under club control until at least 2010.

And despite all the changes this season, the group could remain a key part of the Nationals’ foundation after all.

“Nothing’s been said, but once they said there were going to be some different roles, they all realized that,” Manning said. “It’s almost been unbelievable, the role we’ve been on, but we need to continue it through and win some more games.”

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