In win over Astros, Nationals’ bullpen depth comes through again

Again on Wednesday, the Nationals went into the late innings with a lead, a precious chance for their bullpen to get some work protecting a shot to win. It’s happened so rarely since they traded Matt Capps on July 29 - the Nationals have just seven saves since then - that they haven’t collected enough data to see who they might be able to call on consistently in the ninth inning.

The Nationals’ seventh save came on Wednesday night in the buzziest way possible for a team sitting on 63 wins. Just a night before, manager Jim Riggleman had pulled Drew Storen - the 2009 first-rounder being groomed as the closer of the future - with two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game, and what followed was a lively discussion about confidence, matchups and dressing up this year’s record as opposed to developing for the future.

Jim Riggleman talks with the media following the Nats’ 4-3 win over Houston

So when the ninth inning rolled around on Wednesday night and Storen was nowhere to be found in a one-run game, the message boards heated up again. But at least on this night, it was less of an issue than it initially appeared: Storen simply wasn’t available, after having done some throwing in the bullpen earlier in the night with pitching coach Steve McCatty. And beyond whatever the Nationals’ short-term plans are with the 23-year-old, the underlying message is this: They have enough confidence in the rest of their relievers that they don’t need to be in any hurry to anoint a ninth-inning stopper.

They proved that again on Wednesday, with Tyler Clippard, Joel Peralta and Sean Burnett collaborating on the last nine outs of a 4-3 win over the Astros. None of the three pitchers was expected to be as vital to the team this year as they have been, but they’re testaments to how deep the bullpen has become.

It’s a striking turnaround, going from comically bad in 2009 to the strongest link on a weak team in 2010. The Nationals had Burnett and Clippard late last season, signed Peralta and brought Storen up from the minors in May. They also signed Capps in December, watched him become an All-Star and flipped him to Minnesota for catcher Wilson Ramos. And the results have continued to be there; the Nationals’ relievers have the fourth-best ERA, the fifth-best walk rate and the sixth-best percentage of runners stranded in the National League.

And on Wednesday, they showed enough depth that Riggleman could sit Storen.

“With all the arms we’ve got down there, and the confidence I have in Clip, Peralta and Burnett, I was just going to try and stay away from him tonight,” Riggleman said.

The group actually wasn’t at its best on Wednesday; Clippard allowed an inherited run to score, and lamented swiping a win from Jason Marquis after the game. But he struck out two in the seventh, and Peralta, who has been one of the stoutest members of the bullpen in 35 appearances, struck out three of the four batters he faced. Then it was on to Burnett, who’s quietly whittled his ERA down to 2.37 in 69 appearances and earned his third save.

All this presents an interesting set of decisions for the 2011 season; Riggleman said on Wednesday that the Nationals don’t feel required to make Storen the full-time closer this year, or even next year, and his caution with Storen the last two days would suggest a slower pace of development.

The Nationals have had too many things go right with their bullpen this year to think all of their relievers will be this successful next year, particularly when the group’s batting average on balls in play (.297) is fourth-best in the NL. But it’s at least shown enough depth that the two most likely kneejerk moves - going out to add another reliever or giving Storen the job before the Nationals feel he’s ready - seem unlikely.

“As a ballclub, you learn a lot in games like that,” Clippard said. “Even though we’re out of it a little bit, and the season’s kind of winding down, when you’re in close ballgames, and you see all the little things happen in the game, and all the detail-oriented things you need to get done to win a close ballgame, it’s huge for the development of young guys and the guys we have in this clubhouse to continue to grow. That’s what we need.”