NEW YORK | As the members of the Nationals’ bullpen sat behind the fence in right center at Citi Field on Sunday, working overtime on the final day of the season for the second year in a row, they started telling stories about last year’s 15-inning win over the Braves on the season’s last day.
“The guys started telling me it’s becoming kind of a tradition here,” said reliever Miguel Batista, who wasn’t with the team for last year’s marathon finish. “My first question was, ‘Did you guys win?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ OK, because I don’t want to stay this long and lose.”
With the way the Nationals’ bullpen pitched on Sunday - really, with the way they’ve pitched all year - there wasn’t much chance they would lose.
Unequivocally, the bright spot of the team’s season has been the Nationals’ group of relievers. They started the year with Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps shutting down games and proceeded with Drew Storen and Joel Peralta becoming valuable members of the group. They stayed consistent after Capps (who made his first All-Star team) was traded to Minnesota on July 29, with Sean Burnett stepping ably into a late-inning role. And on Sunday, they closed the encore with their most virtuosic performance of the season.
The group pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings, keeping the Mets scoreless after Livan Hernandez exited the game. When the Nationals finally got the lead in the 14th, after Oliver Perez hit a batter, walked three and left to a downpour of boos, Batista came in for his second save of the year.
Here’s how good the Nationals’ bullpen was on Sunday: In their 7 1/3 innings, they gave up just two hits, two walks and struck out six. Had a starting pitcher posted that line, he would have turned in one of the team’s best starts of the season.
And it’s indicative of how strong the unit has been all season. The Nationals led the majors with 545 2/3 relief innings, and through all that work, they ended the year with a 3.35 ERA, fifth-best in baseball.
“We don’t know if (other teams) would have pitched as many innings as we did, that they would have had the same ERA,” Batista said. “Clippard was unhittable for almost three-quarters of the season, and Peralta came out of nowhere to be our miracle maker. We lost Capps at the trade deadline, but you can’t put a price on what Clippard and Peralta did.”
There’s no doubt the Nationals need to improve their rotation; manager Jim Riggleman said it again on Sunday, and as Batista put it, the team needs a “front horse.”
But the Nationals’ relievers, after carrying the team most of the year, saved their best for last.
“More than anything, I think it’s pride,” Peralta said. “We try to help each other a lot.”