NEW YORK - When this road trip began at the beginning of the week, the Nationals bullpen looked like an unsightly blackhead on an otherwise clean face.
The 10-game trip now halfway complete, the Nationals having won all five games to date, that blackhead has all but disappeared thanks to the application of some Clearasil. Or, more accurately, the redefinition of roles for this relief corps.
Today’s 3-1 victory over the Mets was the latest, and perhaps best, example of the dramatic turnaround the bullpen has experienced. With Shawn Kelley and Oliver Pérez unavailable after pitching the previous two nights, Blake Treinen, Enny Romero and Koda Glover stepped in to retire all eight batters they faced and finish off Gio Gonzalez’s latest win at Citi Field.
“When you have a role, you know when you’re gonna pitch,” said Glover, who recorded the final out to notch his first career save. “But other than that, you always need to be ready anyways. That’s what we try to do down there. Shawn, with his two (Tommy John surgeries), we’re trying to stay away from him as much as possible. And I’m going to pick up the slack. And that’s what I did tonight.”
The entire bullpen has been stepping it up over what began as a tumultuous week but instead has morphed into a stretch of dominance.
Nationals relievers over the last three days have collectively pitched nine scoreless innings, allowing one hit. During the team’s current six-game winning streak, they’ve posted a 1.89 ERA, and two of the three runs they’ve allowed were scored off Treinen before he lost the closer’s job.
“We are a group,” said Romero, who has retired eight consecutive batters in this series. “Everybody’s pitching good. ... The bullpen now is good.”
It will require a bit more continued success before that statement can made with full confidence, but there’s no denying the turnaround the Nationals relief corps has experienced as this daunting road trip has reached its midway point.
With roles beginning to be better defined, positive results have begun to become the norm.
Take Treinen, for example. After getting three days off to re-collect his thoughts after he was demoted from the closer’s role, the right-hander got back to work today in a situation far more familiar to him: the seventh inning.
Summoned by manager Dusty Baker after Gonzalez retired one batter in the seventh to raise his pitch count to 107, Treinen wound up needing only three pitches (two of them strikes) to record two outs and end the inning.
“It was nice to get out there, divisional competition, see some familiar faces and familiar situations,” Treinen said. “That’s the kind of situation I was in last year, and I’m comfortable with that. It’s just good to get some positive results.”
“It seemed like he was in his comfort zone,” Baker said. “We need Blake. We need him, big-time, because there’s a lot of things he can do out of that bullpen to help the club.”
Next up was Romero, who delivered three key outs during Friday night’s extra-inning win and picked up right where he left off. The left-hander retired five straight batters in this one, striking out both Michael Conforto and Asdrúbal Cabrera.
After letting 14 batters reach base in his first 4 1/3 innings this season, Romero credits a minor adjustment - moving his hands farther away from his chest as he begins his delivery - for having helped him throw more strikes and retire more batters.
“Right now, I can throw every pitch for a strike,” he said. “If I can throw like that, the manager will have confidence and they’ll put me in the game.”
Because the Mets lineup is stacked with left-handed batters, Romero was given the opportunity to start the bottom of the ninth and face Cabrera and Jay Bruce. Then Glover was summoned to face Travis d’Arnaud and record the final out of the game, not to mention his first career save.
And just like that, what had been the Nationals’ biggest area of concern has been among the biggest reasons they’re on a six-game winning streak, with a chance to complete their second straight road series sweep of a division rival Sunday night.
“We’re starting to get more comfortable, more dialed-in,” Glover said. “We’ll be fine. We’re just trying to win.”