Bullpen breakdowns new, but story the same in 14-7 loss

PHILADELPHIA | The anniversary of one of the ugliest weekends - and swiftest responses - in Nationals history is drawing close, with the team set to begin a 10-game homestand 364 days after a fateful series against the Florida Marlins, during which Washington became the first team in major-league history to lose three straight games it led at the start of the ninth inning.

At that point, the Nationals had a bullpen that didn’t know how to protect leads. So far this year, that hasn’t been a problem; new closer Matt Capps has saved all three of Washington’s wins, two of them by one run.

But a group that, in personnel, bears no resemblance to the one that began the 2009 season is treading a similarly tenuous path - if for different reasons.

That became clear again on Wednesday night in a 14-7 loss to the Phillies, during which the Nationals had the lead, gave it back, got it again, gave it back once more and saw their bullpen turn a flawed performance by both teams into a Philadelphia romp. The six Nationals relievers who pitched on Wednesday gave up a combined seven runs on seven hits and four walks, handing far too many appetizing chances to a team that needs few of them.

“It doesn’t look like they’re very scared of us out there,” said right-hander Jason Bergmann, who gave up a decisive home run to Shane Victorino in the fifth inning. “We’re making some pitches, and they’re hitting them well. We’ve got to make some better pitches as a staff. Everyone right now is scuffling against these guys. The only thing I can say is, they’re sitting in the box, and they’re happy to see us come out, and that’s not the way it should be.”

The bullpen will likely get its first change on Thursday, when the Nationals are expected to send down a reliever to make room for left-hander Scott Olsen, who is scheduled to pitch the series finale against the Phillies. Asked if Olsen will take the spot of outfielder Roger Bernadina, who was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse after Wednesday’s game, or if there would be more moves, general manager Mike Rizzo said, “It’s more complex than that.”

The fault lines along which the bullpen is cracking look nothing like the ones it crumbled on last year. In Washington’s three wins, the starting pitcher has worked at least five innings every time, allowing the Nationals to run through the progression of their best relievers: Tyler Clippard, Brian Bruney and Matt Capps.

Capps, who signed with the Nationals in December after being non-tendered by the Pirates, has saved all three games in which he’s been asked to protect a lead. That’s nothing like last year, when blown saves outnumbered successful ones through the season’s first two months and closer Joel Hanrahan was stripped of his duties three weeks into the season.

The stress on the bullpen this year is being applied more by the Nationals’ starting pitching, which left more ground for relievers to cover on Wednesday than in any other game this year. Starter Craig Stammen lasted just 1 1/3 innings, on a night when the Nationals were able to knock Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick out after 1 2/3 innings and give Stammen two leads to work with.

“It’s very disappointing, and slightly embarrassing, to let a lead like that slip away so quickly,” Stammen said. “But I’ve had many pitching coaches in the minor leagues, and even the one I’ve got right now, say, ‘These kinds of outings happen.’ They happen when you’re in A ball, they happen when you’re in Double-A, they happen in the big leagues. It’s not about what you do during (the start). It’s how you bounce back from it.”

What Stammen did was what the Nationals’ starter has done in every game the team has lost this year: exit too early. The Nationals had to use left-hander Jesse English for 2 2/3 innings; he became one of two Washington pitchers not to give up a run or a walk in the game. And after English, Bergmann and Sean Burnett each served up home runs, while the Nationals’ offense continued its perplexing streak of offensive futility after the fourth inning (just two runs all season).

This is not a group that’s breaking down at the end of games. It’s a group that’s making mistakes in the middle of them, and making them in a stretch of six games in the first nine against the two-time National League champions. The Nationals’ bullpen has already worked 35 1/3 innings in eight games this season, walking 24 batters in that time. In the first eight games last year, Nationals relievers walked 14 in 28 1/3 innings.

“The walks have hurt us from the beginning,” Riggleman said. “This is our eighth ballgame, and we’ve probably got in the mid-40s in walks (for the entire staff), which is not acceptable. The Philadelphia ballclub has forced us to get out of our game.”

Whether Thursday’s new look is a matter of inventory, or something more, will be answered in the morning; Riggleman said the Nationals had decided who to send to the minors to make room for Olsen, but decided to think about it more after the game, likely meaning English at least earned the right to be discussed again.

But against the National League’s toughest lineup, with a starting staff that’s showing problems of its own, Washington’s bullpen hasn’t been able to get it done.

“Each guy goes in there as his own individual, unique situation he’s coming into. And how he feels that night, and the quality of his pitches, has got to take precedence over everything,” Riggleman said. “The domino thing, it does seem like it’s happened. But it shouldn’t happen.”