Nationals’ bullpen again functioning as two halves

MIAMI - The numbers, and a bit of faulty memory, will tell you that the Nationals’ bullpen - unquestionably the rock of the team by the end of the year - was that way all season. And that’d be partially true. But for the first two months in 2010, one half of Washington’s relief group was getting the job done, while the other half simply couldn’t keep up.

Beyond the sensational starts of Matt Capps and Tyler Clippard, there were pitchers like Jesse English, Jason Bergmann and Tyler Walker routinely struggling to get outs. And Brian Bruney, who came into that season competing for a closer’s job, became such a liability that he was gone by mid-May. It took a series of in-season additions (Drew Storen, Doug Slaten and Joel Peralta) and the improvement of Walker before the group was functioning as a whole.

Fast-forward a year, and the Nationals might have exactly the same problem. Neither Sean Burnett nor Tyler Clippard has allowed a run to score (though Clippard gave up an inherited run last night), and Drew Storen has given up a run in 2 2/3 innings.

But then the Nationals have three relievers with swollen stat lines; Todd Coffey has allowed three runs in 2 1/3 innings. Chad Gaudin, who’s been getting more situational work than long relief opportunities, has given up five runs (four earned) in 2 2/3 innings. And Brian Broderick surrendered four runs in his first big-league appearance.

Jim Riggleman chats with Johnny and Ray after the Nats’ 7-4 loss to Florida

The Nationals wanted to stay away from Clippard and Storen on Wednesday night after they threw a combined 66 pitches the night before, and there was no chance to use Burnett in a 7-4 loss to the Marlins at Sun Life Stadium. But for the second time in three games, a shot to win slipped away in the hands of the Nationals’ bullpen.

Entering with the game tied at four in the sixth inning, Gaudin and Coffey combined to give up three runs in the loss to the Marlins, dropping the Nationals’ record to 1-4 and ensuring they’d lose their second series of the year. Gaudin took the loss, and on his way off the mound in the eighth inning, Coffey got ejected for complaining about Tim Tschida’s strike zone before going nose-to-nose with the umpire.

Washington got its worst starting performance of the year from a pitcher when Livan Hernandez couldn’t escape five walks, and had multiple chances to add on to its lead. But the cracks in the bullpen have still been there.

“It’s still a work in progress,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “We’re going to have to be able to rely on some other guys, and I really have a lot of confidence in Coffey. Gaudin is throwing the ball free and easy, good velocity, the ball’s coming out of his hand good. He got ground balls. They found holes. We just weren’t able to put a zero on the board.”

Here’s the problem, though: The Nationals don’t have the offense to blow many games open, and while their starting staff has pitched admirably the first week of the year, Hernandez’s night was the first sign that could come to an end. They’ll likely have to win some games where they’re not protecting a lead with Clippard, Storen and Burnett, and that means having other relievers who can keep the game close.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the bullpen the Nationals thought they’d have at the beginning of the spring. They expected Henry Rodriguez to bring his 100-mph fastball to the setup role, and thought if they kept a Rule 5 pick, it would be hard-throwing righty Elvin Ramirez, not Broderick. It was part of the reason they were comfortable letting Peralta walk when he asked for a two-year contract - they planned on having enough inventory to replace the 35-year-old cheaply.

But Rodriguez lost his mechanics, then developed a neck injury, while Ramirez went to the 60-day disabled list with shoulder problems. All of a sudden, a bullpen that could have had three relievers with 95-mph-plus fastballs wound up with one: Storen. Gaudin pitched his way into the long relief role with an impressive spring, but he’s been thrust into situations he’s not ideally suited to handle. And with Storen and Clippard recovering from busy nights, the best fastball the Nationals could summon in the late innings was Coffey’s low-90s heat.

Even with the injuries to Rodriguez and Ramirez, the Nationals have the inventory to make some early-season changes in the bullpen if they choose to do so. Collin Balester and Cole Kimball, who both had impressive springs, are beginning the season at Triple-A Syracuse primarily because they had options. Balester had a 2.57 ERA in 17 appearances out of the bullpen last year, and would likely be the first reliever called up. And Kimball, with his high-90s heat and mound intensity, could bring a jolt to the group.

But the Nationals aren’t able to call up anyone who was optioned to the minors in spring training until April 10, and they haven’t given any indications they’d be contemplating a move. Coffey will get some time because of his $1.35 million deal and the fact he’s been a useful reliever in the past, and if the Nationals weren’t planning to keep Broderick long-term, why put him on the roster at all?

So they might not have much flexibility at the moment, and they’ll have to wait at least a few more days before reinforcements become available. For now, they’ll have to hope the second half of their bullpen can close the gap without the mid-season tinkering they needed last year.

“There’s seven of us in the bullpen, last I checked. There’s not three,” Coffey said. “It’s going to take every one of us contributing to help us win.”