The Nationals' 8-6 loss to the Mets tonight was a defeat of the variety they simply haven't endured this year. Washington's bullpen, so solid for most of the season, hasn't melted down as swiftly and dramatically as it did on Tuesday night. And that bullpen failure was about the only thing the Nationals did wrong in a game they led most of the way and probably should have won.
Brian Bruney allowed two hits and three runs (two earned) without retiring a batter, and Tyler Clippard gave up three more runs on four hits in 1/3 of an inning.
"It was a very tough one," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We hadn't let one get away from us like that in a while. We have to suffer through it, shower it off like we shower off the wins and go get 'em tomorrow."
Clippard, so solid when he's started innings, has been a different pitcher when coming in with men on base. He's inherited 18 runners this year and allowed 10 of them to score, including both of the runners Bruney left him on Tuesday.
It was part of a six-run eighth for the Mets that turned a 6-2 Nationals lead into an 8-6 loss, ended a three-game win streak and set up a rubber game in the series tomorrow.
And the Nationals' chief concern, again, is finding a bridge from their starting pitcher to Clippard and Matt Capps. They gave Bruney a chance to work the eighth inning again on Tuesday, and Riggleman was soon left with no choice but to get Clippard, whose workload he's been trying to reduce.
Bruney threw an 0-2 pitch over the middle of the plate to David Wright, who blasted it to right for a double. And after a throwing error by Ian Desmond on the next at-bat, Bruney was gone, having thrown just seven pitches.
"It's kind of tough to say (what went wrong), since I only threw seven pitches," Bruney said. "It's a funny game. I felt really good tonight. I felt like it was going to be a good night. I felt like my arm slot was good. I threw downhill. I had a good breaking ball. Just a poor 0-2 decision, and I paid for it."
There's been a clear demarcation between how Clippard pitches with runners on base as opposed to how he pitches with the bases empty; it's unclear whether that's a mechanical problem from the stretch or something else. But his strikeout-to-walk ratio is more than five times better with the bases empty, and Clippard's six wins have come in part because he's blown leads, ended innings with games tied and seen the Nationals offense put the team ahead. If he has to keep cleaning up seventh-inning messes, it'll continue to cut into his effectiveness as a setup man.
The solution to the Nationals' problem might be Doug Slaten, who worked a scoreless seventh on Tuesday, or it could be some combination of Slaten, Bruney and Sean Burnett. Or it could be someone else in the minors; Joel Peralta, Atahualpa Severino and Josh Wilkie have all pitched well in relief at Triple-A Syracuse, and Drew Storen's arrival in the majors isn't far away.
No one is suggesting Washington has a relief conundrum like it did early last season, when manager Manny Acta's response to one question about a way to fix his imploding bullpen was simply to yell, "Next!", like a Hollywood casting director leafing through bad auditions.
But the Nationals do have a clear issue in the bullpen, and after Tuesdasy, it's as prominent as it's been all year.
"No question," Riggleman said about the need to fix the seventh inning. "I know we had Clip off yesterday. I really wanted to get him two in a row off. He's on a pace to just get way too much there. I took a shot to give him the eighth off with a four-run lead. But it just didn't materialize. We ended up having to put him in there instead of starting his own inning. He had the men on and so forth. It just didn't go well."