- - Monday, April 9, 2018

When the Nationals’ bullpen was squandering leads early last season, general manager Mike Rizzo solved the problem with a pair of July trades.

Veterans Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, acquired in a deal with the Oakland A’s, and one-time Twins closer Brandon Kintzler, summoned from Minnesota, helped the Nationals earn a second straight National League East title.

With that trio with the club to start this year, it was a reasonable expectation that the Nationals bullpen would be much improved in 2018. But while closer Doolittle (3.60) and Madson (0.00) have been fine, Kintzler has struggled.

Kintzler was 0-2 with a 15.75 ERA in his first four outings.

“We are confident in the pitcher that he is and we want him in there in those situations,” manager Dave Martinez said of Kintzler.

And it’s not just Kintzler. Fellow reliever Trevor Gott, who made the Opening Day roster for the first time, had an ERA of 11.57 in his first three bullpen appearances.

In games through Sunday the Nationals bullpen had an ERA of 5.40, which was 13th out of 15 teams in the National League. By comparison, the Chicago Cubs were first at 0.94, the New York Mets second at 1.31 and the Atlanta Braves third at 1.40.

The Nationals had lost five straight games and were 4-5 going into Monday night’s home game with the Braves. Washington never lost five games in a row last season and slipped under .500 for the first time since 2015.

Kintzler, who normally throws the seventh, allowed a grand slam to Jay Bruce of the Mets on Thursday in an 8-2 loss and gave up two runs in the seventh Saturday.

He then gave up the game-winning hit in the 12th inning in a 6-5 loss to the Mets on Sunday.

Despite a high bullpen ERA, there have been some encouraging signs.

Veteran right-hander Shawn Kelley retired the first nine batters he faced in three outings this season and recorded four strikeouts.

This comes after a horrible 2017 in which he had a 7.27 ERA and allowed a whopping 12 homers in just 26 innings.

What is the difference this year for Kelley?

“He is throwing strikes with conviction,” said Martinez, the first-year manager for the Nationals.

“That’s what we expect of him and that’s what he expects of himself and it’s obviously showing results right now,” lefty reliever Sammy Solis said of Kelley.

Solis lowered his ERA to 4.91 after allowing no runs and one hit in two innings Sunday against the Mets while fanning five batters.

“I thought he was outstanding. I’ve got a lot of faith in Sammy. The more and more he goes out there the more confidence he gets,” Martinez said.

The Nationals will need more outings like that in the middle innings from its bullpen.

Another area of concern for the Nationals, besides middle relief, is baserunning.

Speedy shortstop Trea Turner strayed too far past third base and was picked off Sunday night against the Mets. In the same game, third baseman Anthony Rendon was picked off first with hot-hitting Bryce Harper at the plate.

And Harper, normally aggressive on the bases, had a chance to go from first to third on a bad pickoff throw by Mets pitcher Seth Lugo but elected to stay at second in the last of the ninth.

Had he gone to third he might have been able to score when Matt Adams flied out to center field.

“I didn’t want to get thrown out at third,” Harper said.

Instead, the Mets gave intentional walks to Howie Kendrick and Turner, and then Michael A. Taylor and Pedro Severino struck out against Lugo to end the ninth.

The first-place Mets won in 12 innings when Yoenis Cespedes had an RBI single to center off Kintzler after Martinez elected to give an intentional walk to lefty swinger Michael Conforto.

Martinez certainly wasn’t looking for goats, Kintzler or otherwise, after the loss.

“He broke his bat,” Martinez said of the game-winning hit by Cespedes.

The combination of bullpen woes and poor baserunning led to a three-game sweep by the Mets.

“I am not too concerned about any other team but this team,” said Martinez, when asked about the improved Mets.

Solis said the cold weather hasn’t been ideal during the homestand but he wasn’t making excuses.

“We are on a bit of a skid,” said Solis, who joined the Nationals bullpen in 2015.

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