- - Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Washington Nationals picked the wrong year to have their pitching reservoir across the country.

Before this year, if the Nationals needed to call up a pitcher to the major league club, all they needed to do is put in a call to Syracuse, New York, so close that, in dire circumstances, a player could even make the 400 mile drive in six hours.

And even in the early days of the Nationals, it wasn’t a cross country trip when they needed help — just a 1,000 mile plane ride from New Orleans.

Now the Nationals would be better off if their Class AAA team — typically used as the safety net to fill pitching needs — was in Quebec. Or Havana.

Instead, they’ve been running a cross-country junket regularly from their Class AAA club in Fresno, California, back to Washington, looking for someone — anyone — who can get hitters out, the latest being Tanner Rainey to replace reliever Justin Miller, who was placed on the 10-day Injured List with a right rotator cuff strain. Rainey, 26, came to Washington in December from Cincinnati in the trade for Tanner Roark.

Rainey is the 18th pitcher the Nationals have used already, as general manager Mike Rizzo struggles to find relievers to replace the unit he put together this winter that has either failed to stay healthy or failed to protect leads. It is becoming a rerun of 2018, when Washington used 30 pitchers during the season — the most they had used since the bad old days of 2009, when they had 30 pitchers on the roster by the end of a 103-loss season.

Those days, the staff included the likes of Kip Wells, Daniel Cabrera, Ron Villone and Jorge Sosa.

No Max Scherzers, Stephen Strasburgs or Sean Doolittles on that roster.

But Rizzo compared his team’s play so far in 2019 to that of those darks days of roster tryouts to find pitchers resembling major leaguers last week in his weekly appearance on The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan.

“It’s the worst we’ve played probably since we’ve come off an expansion-type of a roster, so we’ve got a long way to go,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got to play a lot better baseball and we’ve got to win games, and we’ve got to get back to learning how to win. We walk into that ballpark every day — I always say, you guys have heard me say it a million times, we put a guy on the mound that gives us a chance to win each and every day, and over the last seven years we are one of three teams that have had a .500 or better record. That’s hard to believe, but that’s true. We’re one of three teams in the last seven years that have been .500 or better.”

All that is true — and alarming, because there doesn’t appear to be any help in Fresno or Harrisburg or anyplace down on the farm, and it’s too early in the season for the general manager to pull the rabbit out of the hat like he did during the 2017 bullpen struggles, when he made the trades that brought Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler to Washington in July. It’s May.

What the Nationals are seemingly doing right now is running a tryout camp for major league relievers — reminiscent of another time during the franchise dark ages, when in 2007 they invited 38 pitchers to spring training with the hopes of finding a staff.

“(We’re) going to go in with an open mind to try to bring the best team north we can for the best long-term benefit of the Nationals,” franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden told reporters. “That might mean developing two guys in the rotation a little ahead of time and taking a little hit as we’re developing.”

That’s a frightening passage, isn’t it?

It’s not spring training now. It’s eight weeks into the season, and there’s no time for developing guys or taking hits in their search for relievers.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

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