The efficiency with which the Washington Nationals’ bullpen can eviscerate any shred of hope on a given night is so pure, so unflinching, that it’s worth wondering whether it’s the thing this team does best.
An offense that has become one of the best in the National League has been unable to pile up enough runs to keep up with the escalating tally for the opposing team. Even games that should be tinged with promise, such as Monday night’s, wind up ending the same way.
In his first major league start, 2007 first-round pick Ross Detwiler showed the progress that has the team hoping he’s ready to stay in the big leagues by the end of the year. A five-run explosion in the fifth inning put the Nationals up by two runs and gave manager Manny Acta a perfect occasion to take Detwiler out, with the chance of earning his first big league win in sight.
But when the Nationals get a lead these days, it’s like they’re stretching a rubber band as far as it can go before it snaps back. On Monday night, the recoil took all of 20 minutes. Within four batters of a Washington reliever throwing his first pitch of the night, the lead was gone for good. The Nationals trailed by three at the end of the sixth and by six in the ninth.
The final result, a 12-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates before 14,549, was only significant in the similarity it bore to so many other Nationals games this season.
It was the 10th time the Nationals lost when they scored six or more runs; they had only nine such losses last year. In their past five games, the Nationals have scored 29 runs - and lost them all.
Washington has given up 10 runs or more seven times, including four in its past nine games.
“It was just sad to see the way things are going for our bullpen,” Acta said. “I’ve been in the game for a while, and I’ve just never seen anything like it before. We’re just going to have to change the mindset.”
By “change the mindset,” Acta said he meant changing the personnel. And though what would constitute the Nationals’ third major bullpen reconfiguration didn’t happen Monday night, it could be imminent. Washington has already used 13 relievers this year, and Chicago White Sox castoff Mike MacDougal is believed to be next in line, along with the possible return of Jason Bergmann.
“They’re trying their stinking best,” catcher Josh Bard said. “But this isn’t a try league. It’s a do league.”
The biggest loser in all of it was Detwiler. For a pitcher who spent most of last year trying to remake his delivery in the minor leagues, he showed few of the work-in-progress traits that have sent his results spiking up and down like the stock index. His fastball topped out around 94 mph. He had an effective curveball and change-up and showed he wasn’t afraid to pitch inside.
“The biggest thing for me is the [zero] walks,” Detwiler said. “[The difference this year] is really just keeping the ball down and throwing more quality strikes.”
Though he got in trouble in the third, allowing a single, hitting a batter and giving up a three-run homer to Craig Monroe, Detwiler floated above any other issues and was in line for the win when the Nationals scored five runs in the fifth to take a two-run lead, a rally punctuated by back-to-back homers from Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman.
Detwiler was quickly indoctrinated in the sobering reality of being a Washington starter, in which would-be wins are erased with stunning regularity once they become the property of the bullpen. This one only took a half-inning to disappear. Garrett Mock got through just a third of an inning. His line: a hit, three runs, a walk, a wild pitch and a hit batter.
“It’s as simple as the linescore,” he said. “I don’t have anything to say.”
Jesus Colome then allowed hits to three of the first four batters he faced. By the time he left the game, the Pirates had matched the Nationals’ five-run inning and led 8-5.
Kip Wells and Joel Hanrahan combined to give up four more runs, shrouding any chance of a comeback.
Asked what the Nationals could do to fix the problem, Acta simply shouted “Next!” like a Hollywood casting director rifling through candidates at an audition.
“It’s not working,” he said. “Whether it’s young guys or veterans, we’re not getting it done.”