Bullpen’s latest collapse ends with Miller headed to IL

They can’t trust their planned setup man in any situation of consequence. The other experienced right-hander they added this winter can’t prevent an inherited runner from scoring. The lefty they signed late in spring training doesn’t look fully ready for this workload. And now one of the few members of the Nationals bullpen to perform early on and merit a chance in high-leverage spots is injured after three straight disastrous outings.

Suffice it to say, the Nationals relief corps - already a mess two weeks into the season - is going to have to undergo even more changes after Justin Miller revealed he has a lower back strain in the wake of tonight’s 6-3, 10-inning loss to the Pirates.

What was shaping up to be another inspiring victory thanks to Patrick Corbin’s seven-inning gem and Anthony Rendon’s two homers instead morphed into the latest fiasco for a bullpen that simply can’t close out games that are there for the taking.

“We just got to execute pitches,” an exasperated Davey Martinez said. “The bullpen has to come in and execute pitches. When you get seven good innings from your starter, we need six outs.”

Sean Doolittle has had no trouble recording three of those necessary final outs. Martinez has been forced to use his closer to get as many as five outs a few times already, but that’s not a long-term solution to the problem.

No, the only way this gets better is for someone - or, preferably, multiple people - to start consistently recording outs prior to the ninth inning.

Martinez thought he had found a reliable setup man in Miller, who in his first four appearances of the season did not allow a run and retired 11-of-14 batters. But over his last three games, beginning one week ago in New York, Miller has collapsed. He has surrendered seven hits, four of those home runs, including the three-run blast by Colin Moran that proved the difference in tonight’s loss.

The Moran homer came on an 0-2 fastball that registered only 91 mph, raising some red flags in the Nationals dugout. They had Miller get checked out by the medical staff after the game, and he was diagnosed with a lower back strain that he says will now land him on the 10-day injured list.

“It’s been affecting me since New York, I guess,” the right-hander said. “That’s when I saw the drop in velo. And of course when the ball’s flattening out, it’s not gonna have late life. So, something was going on, and I couldn’t really figure out what it was. I’ve been with the training staff trying to figure it out, but there’s something in my back right now that is not allowing me to get through my pitches.”

Miller-on-Mound-Red-After-HR-Sidebar.jpgMiller, who dealt with what he described as a more painful back injury for a few days in spring training, said there’s nothing wrong with his arm. And he experiences no pain in day-to-day activities, only when he’s pitching.

“It just feels like somebody’s punching me in the kidney over every single time I try and throw a ball,” he said. “It just feels like something’s there that’s not allowing my body to get through it.”

So now the Nationals must find another fill-in for a bullpen that sports an MLB-worst 8.12 ERA and has required daily massaging by its manager just to be usable.

They have a few potential choices off their pitching staff at Triple-A Fresno. Austen Williams had the best spring training of the group and nearly made the opening day roster but has been scored upon in two of his first three appearances in the regular season. Austin Adams is off to the best start so far, with four scoreless innings and nine strikeouts. Starters Austin Voth and Kyle McGowin could also be brought in to provide length as long relievers.

“We got to get this one thing ironed out,” Martinez said. “We’re playing really well. I can’t speak enough about how Corbin is pitching, how all our position players are playing, really well. Defense is good. Our baserunning has been good. We’ve got to iron out that bullpen. We’ve got to iron out the back end of the games. We can’t run Doolittle out there for six outs, five outs, every day.”

Martinez hoped Kyle Barraclough would be among those contributing, especially after Trevor Rosenthal pitched his way out of everything but blowout situations. But Barraclough has been done in by an inability to get out of jams.

The right-hander has now inherited seven baserunners and allowed all seven to score. That includes two more tonight when he entered in the eighth inning with the Nationals clinging to a 2-1 lead and immediately gave up a two-run single to Starling Marte past a diving Rendon at third base.

“You come in, and you’re attacking guys,” Barraclough said. “You’re not coming in and trying to be tentative. You’re going right at them. I need to execute a little better. But at the end of the day, if he pops it up or hits it right at (Rendon) or (Rendon) catches that ball to keep him out, then we’re not talking about it.”

Close calls or not, the Nationals bullpen as a group hasn’t come close to getting the job done this season. And in the process, a bunch of stellar pitching and hitting performances have been squandered.

It’s up to everyone involved to find some kind of consistent rhythm and solve this glaring problem.

“I’ve been in a different bullpen with a different rotation, stuff like that, but it always took three weeks for people to settle into their roles,” Barraclough said. “And ideally you’d like for everyone to hit the ground running and have your seventh, eighth and ninth inning guys, and your lefty matchup guys. But for me, the last three years it takes a few weeks for that all to settle.”

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