- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Washington Nationals’ bullpen is so bad that it has taken on a life of its own, overshadowing everything else the team does.

Fans make up names for the bullpen - The Kennel, The Dumpster - to illustrate its futility.

Ryan Wagner, without explanation, retired from the Nationals’ Class AAA Syracuse club the other day - either in frustration over not getting called up to the major league club or in fear of being called up to join the bullpen.

It may get better but not much. You don’t put together a bullpen in May. You do it in December and January. No one can seriously expect acting general manager Mike Rizzo to come up with an effective group of relievers now. And you can’t blame manager Manny Acta for the low-grade talent he has been provided.

When you look for a bullpen in May, you pick from players no other team wanted. You’re not shopping at Macy’s. You’re shopping at Unclaimed Salvage & Freight.

You’re shopping in the Atlantic League.

Roughly equivalent to Class AAA, the Atlantic League is an entertaining, successful, independent minor league that consists of eight teams, including the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. If the Nationals go shopping in the Atlantic League for pitching help, they will find some familiar faces.

It’s like old-home week.

Felix Rodriguez - You remember Felix, don’t you? In 2006, Rodriguez went 1-1 with a 7.67 ERA in 31 games. Now he’s pitching for the Camden Riversharks with a 3.86 ERA in 10 appearances, eight walks and six strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings.

Ryan Drese - A Jim Bowden reclamation project off the waiver wire, Drese went 3-6 with a 4.98 ERA in 11 starts in 2005. He pitched twice in 2006 before going on the disabled list and ending his major league career. He also pitches for the Riversharks with a 1-4 record and a 3.20 ERA in five starts.

John Halama - Halama will forever be known in Nationals lore as the pitcher manager Frank Robinson pulled after just two-thirds of the first inning of a start in 2005 after giving up one run. It was classic - something angry fans would love to see these days at Nationals Park.

“I’m not going to sit there and have him go ball one and ball two, ball three, ball four,” Robinson told reporters. “I don’t care if it was two outs. He was one hit away from disaster. … What am I supposed to do? Let him stand out there and give up the runs and let it go? No. I don’t manage like that.”

Halama went 0-3 in 10 appearances, including one brief start, with a 4.64 ERA in 21 1/3 innings that season. He’s right down the road in Waldorf with the Blue Crabs, where he has a 5-0 record and a 1.80 ERA in five starts.

Brian Lawrence - Brian, we hardly knew ye. Seriously. He, too, is part of Nationals lore, even though only a handful of fans at spring training ever saw him with the club.

Lawrence won 42 games for the San Diego Padres from 2001 to 2004 but slumped to 7-15 in 2005. He was dealt to the Nats for slugger Vinny Castilla, who was near the end of his career.

While soft-tossing two games into spring training, Lawrence complained that his right shoulder hurt. He had torn a rotator cuff and was paid $3.5 million for never pitching an inning.

The Nationals never bothered to have an MRI done before finalizing the trade.

“It’s expensive to do MRIs on every single transaction,” Bowden said.

And this was before the Lerners owned the team.

Lawrence’s rotator cuff is working well enough these days to handle Atlantic League hitters - he is 2-2 with a 2.37 ERA in five starts for the Riversharks.

The name, though, that jumps out at you on the Atlantic League rosters is not that of a former National.

From 2000 to 2004, Keith Foulke was one of baseball’s best closers, saving 162 games over that span. He helped bring the Boston Red Sox their first World Series championship in 86 years, saving 32 games.

But he struggled in 2005, and a series of knee injuries and elbow problems prompted him to retire just as spring training began in 2007. Foulke came back in 2008 with Oakland and in 31 appearances - none as a closer - posted a 4.06 ERA.

Foulke, 36, is now pitching for the Newark Bears. In 10 appearances - 11 innings pitched - Foulke has given up just one run and walked just two batters, striking out 12.

He is sitting there on the shelf at Unclaimed Salvage & Freight, where the Washington Nationals may have to shop one day soon.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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