This isn't sustainable, and everyone knows it.
The Nationals' bullpen has pitched the fourth-most innings in the National League, and has more wins (14), more losses (15) and more overall decisions (29) than any relief unit in the NL.
It's not going to - it can't - work in the long term. Baseball's seasons are too long for those who break its rules to survive. And the Nationals understand that. But on nights like Wednesday, when they're stuck asking for multiple innings from relievers after one of their starters comes up short, they're sure lucky to have a bullpen that's as good as the one they have.
After John Lannan allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings, the Nationals' bullpen held the line in a 7-5 win over the Pirates, allowing the offense to rally for a run apiece in the seventh and eighth innings and guarantee a series win over Pittsburgh.
There were key performances from every reliever who took the mound. Matt Capps got his 20th save, showing more evidence that he's almost won the wrestling match with his slider. Tyler Clippard threw another scoreless inning, and so did Drew Storen, the rookie who's quickly turned into a formidable seventh-inning option. Even Tyler Walker, who'd made 20 appearances (but just four in games the Nationals had won) before Wednesday night, got into the act, keeping the game tied with 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
"It's a bullpen shutout, in our eyes," Walker said. "That's what we're looking for."
How do the Nationals start winning games in a fashion they can keep up over the long haul? Lannan wasn't terribly sharp on Wednesday, by his own admission; he said his delivery times to the plate weren't as good as they usually are, and that hurt his sinker, in addition to helping the Pirates steal four bases. But he wasn't helped by his defense on Wednesday - the Nationals made two errors, and center fielder Nyjer Morgan made a couple of ill-advised throws besides his error.
That's been the issue more than the Nationals' starting pitching; they've had five quality starts in the last eight games, but given up 12 unearned runs during that time. Five times in that eight-game stretch, the Nationals have had to throw more than 150 pitches. The extra outs have put stress on the starters, which has in turn required more work from the bullpen.
"I can't call on Storen and Clippard in the fifth," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We're going to over-fatigue those guys if we start doing too much of that. ... When your starter comes out of the game any time before the fifth, or during the fifth, you're going to have some problems."
Eventually, better defense, and by effect, better starting pitching, are what will help the Nationals string together some wins. But for now, they're lucky they have a bullpen that's getting the job done even when it's being asked to do more work than it should.
"They've been great this whole year," Lannan said. "Tyler (Walker) came in, finished that fifth and then had a strong sixth. Drew, Clip and Capps did a great job. Clip and Capps always do a great job, and Storen's coming into his own here. It just gives you more confidence. You know if you get deeper in the ballgame, the game's easier to win."