During the first week of the season, when everything is magnified, it’s easy to fall into the trap of drawing long-term conclusions on both positive and negative developments. Two games into their season, the Nationals bullpen looked like a strength, their new closer up to the challenge. Three games into their season, that same bullpen looks like a weakness, the new closer unable to deliver when he really needs to deliver.
Truth be told, neither answer is fair at this ridiculously early juncture. It will be months before we know if the Nationals relief corps is the final piece that solidifies this talented roster or the problem area that undoes everything else that goes well.
Just know this: Even after tonight’s 4-3 10-inning loss to the Marlins - in which his bullpen gave up all four runs over the final three innings - Dusty Baker isn’t about to draw any negative conclusions.
“I mean, my bullpen ... I love my bullpen,” the manager said. “These guys are going to be one of the best, if they’re not already. It’s a tough one to lose, but that showed a lot of perseverance on their side over there.”
Indeed, give at least some credit to a Marlins lineup that showed some resiliency at the end of a brutally long afternoon and evening at the ballpark, a game disrupted twice by rain totaling 2 hours, 23 minutes of delays and then some wild back-and-forth drama in the final innings.
Down 2-0 in the eighth, Miami got a game-tying homer from J.T. Realmuto off Shawn Kelley, making his first appearance of the young season.
“Hung a slider, got a little too much plate,” said Kelley, who was two strikes away from getting out of the inning with the two-run lead intact. “He’s swinging a good bat, put the barrel on it and did what he’s supposed to do with that pitch.”
Ryan Zimmerman’s homer in the bottom of the inning put the Nationals back on top and put them in position to close it out in the ninth. But with several left-handed batters due up for the Marlins, Baker elected to send Sammy Solís to the mound to open the inning, with closer Blake Treinen warming in the ‘pen and ready to take over.
“We wanted the matchups,” Baker said. “They had some tough hitters coming up there.”
Solís got into trouble when he walked Adeiny Hechavarria and then surrendered a single to Derek Dietrich, but the lefty bounced back to get the speedy Dee Gordon to ground into a rare double play.
That left the tying runner on third with two outs and right-handed pinch-hitter Tyler Moore stepping to the plate, and so that brought Baker out of the dugout to summon Treinen for the final out. Not too long ago, Moore held this role with the Nationals, but his struggles to hit off the bench were a primary reason he was dropped at the end of spring training in 2016. Now he found himself facing his former teammate in Treinen, who had to decide whether to try to exploit Moore’s weaknesses or stick with his best pitch: the power sinker.
“I think there’s paralysis by analysis,” he said. “I’m going to throw what works for me. I’m going to be intelligent about it, but it all comes down to execution. He knows what I’m going to throw. Everybody over there knows that I’m going to throw sinkers.”
Trouble is, Treinen’s 2-2 sinker was right over the heart of the plate. Moore shot it back up the middle and into center field, bringing home the tying run and dealing Treinen his first blown save in three opportunities.
“I left a pitch up, and he put a good swing on it and it was a big moment for their team,” the reliever said. “I got myself in a position where I should’ve had success. I just didn’t execute the pitch that I wanted to throw. It came back to bite us in the butt. I should’ve been able to get one out when I was in there. It didn’t work my way.”
The Nationals still had a chance to win the game and complete a three-game sweep of the Marlins, but they couldn’t drive in the winning runner from scoring position in either the bottom of the ninth or the 10th. Miami, on the other hand, kept the pressure up in its half of the 10th, getting a two-out single from Realmuto and then an RBI double down the left-field line from Justin Bour off veteran Joe Blanton, who was handed his first loss.
With a late-night bus ride to Philadelphia awaiting, the Nationals had plenty of opportunity to stew over this one. And perhaps some will wonder whether this was evidence of a bullpen problem.
Then again, nobody was wondering that when the same bullpen locked down victories in the season’s first two games. So the manager isn’t about to start drawing negative conclusions now.
“It was a very good game,” Baker said. “Sometimes the hitters hit you. These guys are getting paid to hit you, just like our guys are getting paid to get them out. So I know it doesn’t always go your way. If it did, we’d win every game. It was a very good series. We won the series, but we would have loved to have one today.”