A good team, a winning team, is made up of a couple types of players. These are stars and role players. The guys that play their roles will never get as much credit as the Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez-type players, but they are equally important to any winning team, and at 62-41 that is what the Nationals are.
One of the more overlooked roles is long relief. These are the pitchers whose chief duty is to come into a game when it is getting out of hand and to eat innings in order to preserve the arms of other relievers. If it weren't for the work of Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen, the Nationals bullpen wouldn't be in as good of shape as it is. By pitching as many innings as they have, Gorzelanny and Stammen have helped to protect and preserve the arms of their bullpen mates.
Tyler Clippard is on pace to pitch 74 innings as the Nationals' closer. Last season, as the Nationals set-up man, Clippard pitched 88 1/3 innings. This season's set-up man, Sean Burnett, is on pace for 63 innings. Clippard and Burnett are able to pitch most of their innings with the game on the line because Gorzelanny and Stammen are used when it isn't.
In 30 appearances, Gorzelanny has pitched 50 innings for an average of 1 2/3 innings an outing. In 15 of his 30 appearances, Gorzelanny has pitched at least two innings, including Tuesday, night when Strasburg gave up six runs through four innings. The Nationals managed to make it through that game using only three pitchers, despite the lopsided score. Losing games when a starter exits early and not taxing the bullpen is an overlooked aspect of a winning season. The Nats' ability to lose without taxing the bullpen is a small but important aspect of the 2012 season.
Gorzelanny will never get the credit for what he does and one of those reasons dates all the way back to April 19 against the Houston Astros. After Edwin Jackson gave up five runs in his five innings of work, Gorzelanny was called on for mop-up duty and proceeded to surrender five runs in his first inning of work, but remained in the game to finish that inning and came out for a second one. To show how much a reliever's stats can be effected by one bad outing, if that game were removed from Gorzelanny's record, his ERA would drop from 3.42 down to 2.44.
The work of a long man is seldom recognized and one of the big reasons for that is the circumstance they enter into. Twenty-one of Gorzelanny's 30 appearances have come when the Nationals are either tied or behind, and the few times he has entered with a lead, seven times it has been a multi-run lead.
Stammen is a bit different than Gorzelanny. He is the second long man in the bullpen, but also at times has been used as the bullpen ace. Stammen has been bequeathed 17 runners and only three of them have scored. That is a score percent of 17.6 percent; league average is 29 percent. Stammen has pitched 58 innings in 38 games for an average of 1.5 innings an appearance.
Like Gorzelanny, Stammen is often called into the game when the Nats are tied or behind and has done so 21 times. Unlike Gorzelanny, Stammen is called into the games that are more within reach. The beauty of having two long relievers is that one can be used for long relief in more of a mop-up role, while the other can be counted on to clean up a starter's mess and then pitch additional innings. Five times, Stammen has entered the game with two or more inherited runners and none of them scored. In two of those situations, there were no outs, and in two of them, there were less than two outs with a runner on third. Stammen has been put in some tough situations and shone.
Kids in the Washington, D.C., metro area may start buying sports goggles like Clippard or imitating Drew Storen's unique windup, but very few kids are going to start admiring Gorzelanny or Stammen, yet they have been the glue of the Nationals bullpen. They've been asked to perform a role and they have accepted that role without complaint.
Of the 321 2/3 innings pitched by the Nationals bullpen, two men have pitched one-third of them - and they are the long relievers, Gorzelanny and Stammen. That is not insignificant and it is one of the many reasons the Nats are currently the class of the National League East.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.