Ted Leavengood: The bullpen down the stretch

Watching Bryce Harper come alive yesterday afternoon and make the difference in a 5-2 win over the Mets, one that pushed the Nationals’ lead on the Braves to five games, was heartening. Nothing could be better than to see the Nationals’ best 19-year-old get hot down the stretch.

But just as important may have been the performance of Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard. Both pitchers have had hiccups over the past month. Two of the Washington 2012 bullpen stalwarts shut down the Mets in the final innings. It was timely since Gio Gonzalez battled to finish the sixth inning despite clearly not having his best stuff.

Gonzalez’s struggles will reappear for other starters and the bullpen has as much pressure on it as Harper. And a less discussed impact of Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit may surface in the coming weeks. Davey Johnson has done an excellent job of keeping his young rotation fresh. But it has begun to show in the bullpen arms that have carried the load perhaps too often.

Very few Washington starters have gone longer than six innings on any given night. Johnson has said he wants to save his pitchers for the long haul of the season and their ability to throw well in the August heat may be the payoff for Davey guarding his rotation in the early season. Both Jordan Zimmermann and Gonzalez are on pace to throw more than 200 innings, but just barely. Their totals will likely lead the club.

By contrast, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay each threw over 230 innings last year for the Phillies and Cole Hamels 216. Closer Ryan Madson threw only 60. Conversely, Clippard is on pace to throw 75 innings this season after 88 in 2011. Given the high-pressure quality of many of Clippard’s innings this season, the toll on his arm may begin to show in September if it is not already making itself felt. His ERA since the All-Star break has been 5.50, although 3.00 more recently.

Additionally, Stammen is on pace to throw 90 innings. At the All-Star, break he was in integral part of Johnson’s late-inning approach who could throw two innings when a starter failed to make his six-inning mark. But, like Clippard, his ERA since the break has been far too high. It stood at 1.74 at the break, but has been 5.40 for August.

In many ways, Stammen has filled in for two pitchers and should be congratulated for his highly effective efforts. With Drew Storen out and Henry Rodriguez struggling in the closer role, someone had to step up. Stammen did the job. But can he sustain the heavy workload and match his first-half performance?

As a point of comparison, in 201,1 the National League East champion Phillies had no reliever work more than 62 innings.

If there is an Achilles heel for the Nationals as they pound down the stretch run of this season, it may be their bullpen. It has been a strength all year long, but as signs of wear have in Clippard and Stammen nag at consciousness, it might be natural to look to see if help is on the way.

The first wave of cavalry should have arrived in the form of Storen. But since his first appearance in July, he has been inconsistent at best. In August, he has as many walks as strikeouts and was reached for four earned runs in one outing in San Francisco, driving his ERA to 5.79 for the season. Storen has now thrown a similar number of innings as he would have in spring training. He should begin to reach mid-season form over the next few weeks and is the freshest arm the Nationals have.

There is more help in Triple-A Syracuse and that may be the best news of all. Christian Garcia has been all but unhittable in his stint with the Chiefs, serving as their closer for the past few months. His fastball reaches 97-98 mph and he has posted an ERA of 0.33 over 27 innings of work with 34 strikeouts. He was as good with Double-A Harrisburg to start the season. Garcia has only 47 innings of work this season and should still be fresh.

The September pennant race may be a difficult environment in to which to throw an unproven pitcher like Garcia. However he is 27 and may grab the opportunity. Stranger tales have been written.

There is no guttier performer for the Nationals than Clippard and he pitched through an innings count in 2011 that might have diminished a lesser player. There is a catch in the throat when the bullpen call is made. The game is on the line and that is why Clippard has become so valuable to Washington over the last few seasons.

If there are chickens to be sacrificed, their powers should be focused on the bullpen. Their load has been heavy all season long and finding them a juju for stamina and strength can only help them for these final and very crucial weeks.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. 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.

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