A reliever trying to get back on track

The Cardinals didn’t help the Nationals out any last night, falling to the Reds to push the Nats a full seven games back of Cincinnati in the wild card chase.

Twenty-three games to go with a seven-game deficit to overcome.

Have at it, Nats. See what you can do.

Over the last couple months, the Nats have seen their relief corps - a group that for the most part was pretty solid in the first half of the season - start to falter.

Rafael Soriano went through a stretch where he was incredibly shaky before rebounding in his last few appearances. Southpaws Ian Krol and Fernando Abad have had issues getting out left-handed hitters.

Then there’s Ryan Mattheus, who has had major issues since returning from a broken right hand that sidelined him for over two months.

Mattheus was one of the Nationals’ most reliable relievers last season in the team’s run to the National League East division title. He pitched to an impressive 2.85 ERA over 65 appearances, posting a 1.146 WHIP and allowing just 2.6 walks per nine innings.

The right-hander served as a valuable bridge from the starters to the late-inning relievers, proving to be an effective seventh- or eighth-inning option for manager Davey Johnson when he was trying to close out tight games. Mattheus also held lefties to a .241 batting average last season, giving the Nats hope that he could help fill the void when they opened the season with just one left-hander in the ‘pen.

This season, especially since returning from the hand injury, Mattheus has struggled mightily. He posted a 9.45 ERA in nine appearances after coming off the DL before being sent down to Triple-A Syracuse, and even since being recalled from the minors, the numbers haven’t gotten much better.

Mattheus has allowed 10 hits and five earned runs in 3 2/3 innings since coming back from Syracuse. Overall this season, lefties have hit .423/.464/.519 off Mattheus, numbers that haven’t instilled a lot of confidence in Johnson.

“He’s leaving things up in the zone, and (pitching coach Steve) McCatty thinks he’s rushing and not getting on top like he usually does,” Johnson said. “The first pitch he threw to (Chase) Utley (in the sixth inning on Tuesday) was just below the letters. A nice pitch to hit. Then trying to get it down, he threw a couple wild pitches, and he never does that. So I think he’s fighting himself a little bit mentally, pressing and trying to do some different things.

“He was invaluable last year, and he needs to get back to that point.”

Mattheus understands Johnson’s frustration, and he feels it himself. In fact, part of the issue might be that he feels it too much.

Talking to the right-hander the other day, Mattheus expressed a frustration with himself for getting a little too caught up in his overall struggles this season. Mattheus is a very conscientious pitcher, aware of how his issues affect the bullpen overall and Johnson’s decision-making. And he admitted that might be playing a part in his on-field performance.

Mattheus knows he needs to just focus on the smaller picture, worrying about one hitter at a time. He’s aware that his location needs to improve to the point that his misses are pitches down below the zone, as compared to balls up that hitters can drive. If he’s able to keep his two-seamer down and locate his splitter, his numbers should improve.

As Johnson indicated, Mattheus is a key part of the Nats’ bullpen, and they need to get the right-hander back performing to his 2012 level. Otherwise, that bridge from the starters to the late-inning relievers will continue to be lacking.

A quick note: I’m going to be taking a couple days off this weekend, but the MASNsports.com staff will have you covered with all Nats updates through the series down in Miami. Have a good weekend, everyone.

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