Loss to Marlins exposes a gap in the foundation

The changes in the Nationals’ bullpen early this season have been striking, and yet not uniform. On nights when they’ve gotten seven innings out of a starter, they’ve enjoyed the surprising security of what’s been as automatic a setup-closer combination as any in baseball.

Beneath the stellar foundation laid by Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps, though, lies a group of relievers much less likely to save leads, or even maintain close games. It’s almost as though the Nationals have two bullpens: one they can trust and one they can’t.

The problem in their 4-2 loss to the Florida Marlins on Friday night was that the Nationals were forced to work with the bullpen they couldn’t trust. And when forced into that progression, they usually lose.

On Friday night, they did. With the game tied at two at the start of the seventh inning, the Nationals gave the ball to Brian Bruney, who they acquired as a setup man and possible closer in the offseason but whose control problems have bumped him several rungs down the bullpen hierarchy. Bruney did what he’s done too many times this year; walk hitters. His three walks, plus two hits, in 1 1/3 innings led to the Marlins taking the lead for good and the Nationals falling back within a game of .500.

“Clip got hot, but you can’t have Clip every day,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “You want them to go out there and somebody just to grab it, and say, ‘Here, I’m going to pitch in that inning, and seventh or eighth inning, you can rely on me.’ Brian’s got the stuff, and he’s trying to do it. But sometimes you try a little bit too hard, get a little bit off and miss with some pitches.”

The Nationals lost for the first time this season when they led at the beginning of the seventh inning, and the problem going forward is this: They’ve gotten strong starting pitching, and have the eighth and ninth inning covered with Clippard and Capps. But in the handoff from starter to “Clip and Save,” something gets lost.

If this were a relay, the problem would be the second of four legs. And with a bullpen that’s only working with six relievers, the options are limited.

The best choice at this point appears to be Sean Burnett, who hasn’t allowed a run in his last seven appearances. He’s the only left-hander in the Nationals’ bullpen, and with Clippard (who’s also strong against lefties) in the setup role, the Nationals prefer to keep Burnett for certain hitters.

“If we get to that point where he’s going to have to go face everybody, left and right, that’s maybe what we’ll have to do,” Riggleman said.

The other, more farfetched option is at Triple-A Syracuse. That would be reliever Drew Storen, the 10th pick in the 2009 draft who’s given up two runs in 13 innings this season. As general manager Mike Rizzo watched the game spiral away from Bruney, his lieutenants were positioned a row behind him in the GM’s suite, watching Storen save Stephen Strasburg’s Triple-A debut by facing four batters in seven pitches.

Conventional wisdom has Storen staying in the minors for the rest of the month, coming to the majors in late May or early June once the Nationals are sure he’s passed the date for Super Two eligibility. But if they’re still competitive by then, and bullpen depth is the only thing keeping them from surging forward in the standings, they may not have a choice.

“He’s had just minimal time so far, a couple innings here and there, in Triple-A,” Riggleman said. “I’d like for somebody to pitch well enough here that we don’t have to make that move - we just get it solidified with the guys right here. If there was a reason why we brought him up, fine. But I don’t want it to be because we’re struggling here.”

Presently, they are. Though Craig Stammen gave up a sixth-inning homer to Jorge Cantu that tied the game, he pitched well enough, against a team that feasted on him a week ago, to give the Nationals a shot. Things fell apart in the seventh with Bruney.

He has walked 18 batters this season, only one of them intentional. And of the remaining 17, six have been four-pitch walks. Bruney’s control has always been his problem, but right now, even he can’t explain it.

“I walk people. That’s been the thing,” Bruney said. “It’s tough. I don’t want to walk anybody. I’m coming at you with my best stuff. Sometimes, things don’t go your way. I’m frustrated with the way I pitched today, obviously, but I felt like I threw the ball OK.”

McCatty’s explanation stemmed from Bruney’s forceful delivery, which produces nasty stuff that’s not always consistent.

“Sometimes a guy that’s maximum effort like the feel of the effort,” McCatty said. “It’s hard to convince yourself sometimes that taking a little off the fastball can be just as explosive, because you don’t feel like you’re working as hard.”

The Nationals, at 15-14, are left with an obvious problem and a choice: They must find a way to get from their starter to Clippard and Capps, and they could do it by bringing Storen to the majors earlier than they’d like - or sending him down later in the season to preserve service time if they don’t need him. They could try to identify another option with Burnett, or possibly Tyler Walker, or they could continue to back Bruney.

But this is an issue that doesn’t look to be going away.