On lesser baseball teams, the guys in the bullpen can look like leftovers from a yard sale. There are failed starters who never quite made the transition to reliever. There are pitchers loaded with velocity but, too often, lacking in location. There are veterans looking to squeeze another year or two out of their careers as situational specialists — southpaws, say, who can still get out left-handed batters but not the other kind. It can be a real motley crew.
On better teams, though, these collections of odds and ends tend to be much greater than the sum of their parts. And we’re seeing that now with the Washington Nationals, who all of a sudden are one of the big leagues’ “better teams.” Consider the events of Monday night. In the first game of a huge series against the Atlanta Braves, Davey Johnson trotted out seven relievers, every last one, in the course of a 13-inning marathon. They pitched eight innings, allowed zero runs and, with the help of a Braves error, enabled the Nats to come away with a 5-4 victory.
Twenty-four hours later, Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard were back at it, following an electric Stephen Strasburg start with three more scoreless innings. Once again the Nationals won, 4-1 this time, to extend their lead over second-place Atlanta to a season-high seven games.
It’s been something to see, this coming together of the Washington bullpen. The lights-out starting rotation — Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann et al. — has gotten most of the media attention, as lights-out starting rotations will, but the group of relievers the ballclub has assembled in recent years has had much to do with its success.
As Mike Rizzo put it before Wednesday’s series finale, “It’s always advantageous to you when you’re closing a game down [with your bullpen] and making it a six- or seven-inning game. You’ve seen teams flourish with that — including this [Braves] team we’re playing today. With a lead, they run those three guys out at you at the back of the game, as we do, and it makes the game shorter. I think that has changed kind of the landscape of how games are managed and how rosters are constructed.”
Indeed it has. Especially since we’ve entered the Age of the Six-Inning Starter. Most nights, the bullpen needs to get six to nine outs before a club can chalk up a W, which makes the seventh-inning guy, the setup man and the closer three of the most important players on the roster. That’s why Rizzo has spent the last three years gathering — in chronological order - such talents as Craig Stammen, Clippard, Storen, Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus, Tom Gorzelanny and, this past May, Mike Gonzalez.
The Nationals’ general manager has made it look easy, but, of course, it isn’t. Stammen and Gorzelanny came to Washington as starters and had to be rewired as relievers. Clippard underwent a similar transformation in the minors. Then there’s Mattheus, who had just had Tommy John surgery when Rizzo acquired him from Colorado for lefty Joe Beimel. Things, in other words, didn’t have to work out as well as they have. I mean, what if the first three turned out to be like John Lannan, who practically breaks out in hives at the thought of pitching out of the bullpen?
What’s equally amazing about this group is that the Nats didn’t give up a whole lot to get them. Clippard, originally a New York Yankee, came at the low, low price of Jonathan Albaladejo, who’s spent most of this season in the Pacific Coast League (after pitching last year in Japan). Gorzelanny was obtained from the Chicago Cubs for three minor leaguers who are still minor leaguers. And Gonzalez was a freebie - a street free agent coming off knee surgery.
Only in the case of Burnett did the Nationals have to give up quality (Joel Hanrahan) to get quality. And Hanrahan, when he was here, wasn’t anything close to the All-Star reliever he’s been in Pittsburgh. (OK, so the Nats also sent slugger Josh Willingham to Oakland so they could more thoroughly inspect Henry Rodriguez’s 100-mile-per hour heat. But H-Rod, who has struggled with his mechanics, is on the disabled list and might not see any more action with the Nats this season.)
Just as significant, “A lot of those guys, they’re young and controllable [contractually],” Rizzo said. “We have ‘em for multiple years.” So the bullpen the Nationals have built isn’t going to get busted up by free agency. It’s here today, and it’ll be here, for the most part, tomorrow.
There aren’t many bullpens that could not only survive but thrive with the regular closer (Storen, a 43-save machine a year ago) missing the first 89 games because of elbow surgery. But the Nationals’ has, thanks in large measure to Clippard’s 28 saves since his July 22 reassignment and Stammen’s rapid development into one of the best — and most durable — middle relievers in the game. There’s nothing about the Nats’ pen that looks yard-sale-ish now. If Strasburg and Co. are Death, then Clippard and friends are Taxes.