Yesterday an example of how good Nats’ ‘pen can be

CHICAGO - We know about what Tyler Clippard, Brad Lidge and Drew Storen can bring to the back end of the Nationals’ bullpen, when healthy.

But when you add in quality performances from guys like Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus and Henry Rodriguez, who all helped the Nationals secure a 7-4 comeback win yesterday over the Cubs, you start to see that this could be a special group the Nats are working with.

“We’ve got a pretty good bullpen,” Stammen said. “You could tell by the way they made the moves at the end of spring that we had so many guys who could be on this team and the decisions they made were really tough. That means we’ve got some pretty good pitchers down there.”

It’s easy to look at the Nats’ dramatic two-out eighth inning rally as the turning point in yesterday’s game, as they brought five runs across the plate to take a late lead. But without the outings turned in by Stammen and Mattheus, who combined to pitch 3 1/3 scoreless frames in the middle innings, the game might have been out of reach by the time the Nats came to bat in the eighth.

Stammen entered the game with two runners on in the fourth, and promptly got starter Gio Gonzalez out of the jam by getting a weak ground ball to third. The 28-year-old righty then followed that up by throwing two more scoreless innings, allowing just one hit. Mattheus came on for the seventh inning, worked a perfect frame with two strikeouts, and the Nats’ hitters stepped up from there.

Those middle inning performances can often get overlooked, but Stammen acknowledged after the game that without the Nats being able to put up zeros over the final 5 1/3 yesterday, “we probably don’t win.”

“Everybody on the 25-man, everybody’s got their own little role and every single role that they have is just as important as the other one,” Stammen said. “Some people might get more pub and they might be put in tougher situations like Clip and the closer and people like that, but when it’s all said and done you’ve got to get out there and get outs no matter when you’re put in the game.”

Mattheus agreed.

“It’s just as important when you’re down by two or three to keep the game close,” he said. “Just like the last two days. We came back, scored some runs late. And Stammen putting up a couple zeroes, and Henry (Rodriguez) and I doing the same, it gave us a chance to come back in the ballgame.”

Once the Nats took the lead in the top of the eighth, manager Davey Johnson turned things over to his power arms. Clippard got through the eighth with one strikeout, and after walking the first batter he faced in the ninth, Rodriguez struck out the side in order. His final strikeout, which secured Rodriguez’s first save of the season, saw him hit 101 mph on the stadium gun for strike two and then set down Jeff Baker with a nasty 85 mph slider on the next pitch.

“He was filthy,” Johnson said.

Ironically, Stammen and Mattheus might be the two guys to get bumped out of the Nats’ bullpen when Storen and Chien-Ming Wang return from the disabled list, as both Stammen and Mattheus have options remaining. But yesterday, they were crucial to the Nats’ success, showing just how talented this ‘pen is.

“I said I think this is one of the best bullpens in baseball,” Johnson said. “I felt that last year, and with the addition of Brad Lidge, we’re just that much stronger. Stammen did a hell of a job. Everybody else did their job and the offense came alive. That’s the way you win ball games on the road.”

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