- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2015

Arms draped over the dugout railing, Jonathan Papelbon looked out at the giddy New York Mets on Wednesday. His teammates trudged out of the dugout, not interested in viewing the joy a sweep by the Mets had produced for the New Yorkers. Papelbon stayed to watch the Mets high-five and back-slap. The face of the Washington Nationals’ wild-eyed closer, who enters the game to a bellowing Ric Flair, was blank. It was hard to tell if he had a look of disbelief or acceptance.

Entering Thursday, the Nationals were seven games behind the Mets in the National League East following a debilitating three-game series with the front-runner. A streak of five consecutive wins before the series spurred enough hope that the Nationals could drag themselves closer to the charmed Mets at the start of the week. Their three best starters, Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg were set to pitch the series. None won a game. The immense collapse of the bullpen assured that.

Only Strasburg made it more than six innings, putting the series on the bullpen. They failed. Each day, the harrowing tale had a new twist.

On Monday, it was the men in the seventh inning. Felipe Rivero, Blake Treinen and Casey Janssen took blows. The Mets turned a 5-5 game into an 8-5 win.
On Tuesday, it was an epic crumbling. The Nationals led, 7-1, before giving it all back — and more. Rivero and Treinen were again among the guilty. Drew Storen walked three batters in 1/3 of an inning. In his six seasons, Storen has pitched 13 separate months without walking three batters.

On Wednesday, a final heart wrench arrived. Strasburg was a force until the eighth inning, when he allowed a tying home run to pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson.
The night after the second game and afternoon before the third, Nationals manager Matt Williams contended the best thing for his melting bullpen was to run them right back to the mound. When Strasburg faltered, he called Storen into the game. After two pitches, Storen had his hands on his hips and back to the plate. He was watching Yoenis Cespedes’ two-run home run soar into the jubilant Mets bullpen.

“It’s tough,” Storen said. “It tests your will a bit. That’s what this game is about. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get here, it’s not easy to stay here, it’s really not easy to be an elite guy, especially down in the bullpen. You’re the hero or the zero. So, I’ve been on the wrong end of things recently, but got a couple weeks to turn it around.”

Papelbon did his share of damage, too. He allowed a run on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Both were crucial. The Nationals were within a run each time he faltered.

The Nationals acquired Papelbon on July 28 with the thought that bumping Storen to the eighth would allow Williams to use the rest of the bullpen in the sixth and seventh. That theory has been mangled by managerial missteps and the bullpen’s lack of ability, much of which has to do with the players and not Williams. When the bullpen walks six and gives back a six-run lead — “It’s almost hard to believe,” Zimmermann said — that does not hang on Williams.

The bullpen problems festered in the middle, not just at the end. Losing Craig Stammen, who averaged 81 innings and had a 2.93 ERA during the last three seasons, to a season-ending injury in April has been a little-discussed detail. Aaron Barrett, so effective last season, was not so this one. He had Tommy John surgery last week. Dr. James Andrews also shaved down a bone spur during the procedure, which led to Barrett storing a jar with bone chips in his locker. Keeper of oddities was not his projected role in spring training.

Williams’ end-of-season usage of Rivero, a rookie and former starter, brought memories of reliever “Everyday” Eddie Guardado. The first time Rivero pitched three consecutive days was from Aug. 30 through Sept. 1. He also pitched Sept. 6 through Sept. 8. In the 11 games from Aug. 30 to Sept. 9, Rivero pitched seven times. His last two outings, he faced three batters. He walked all three, with his velocity dropping from the high 90s to the middle 90s.

Janssen and Treinen were volatile all season. Meanwhile, Thornton was turned into a specific matchup pitcher. He has made 51 appearances this season. He’s thrown a full inning just 19 times.

Bullpens are like insurance. No one wants to invest in them until tragedy strikes. Yet, once again, there is a direct correlation between a strong bullpen and winning baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball and best bullpen ERA in the National League. Of MLB’s top 10 teams in bullpen ERA, seven are en route to the playoffs. The Nationals are on the way home. Their bullpen ERA is 16th best in baseball.

Papelbon has pitched in the postseason four times. When he arrived, he generously surveyed the clubhouse, and made a correlation to the playoffs.
“Playoffs, the coolest cucumber always wins,” Papelbon said. “I think that we got a lot of cool guys on this team.”

At this point, the season’s hopes have been put on ice.

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