If there was a point at which the Nationals' bullpen was going to break down and prove the loss of Matt Capps was a crippling blow it wasn't able to handle, Sunday would have been the time for it to happen.
The Nationals' relievers had worked 22 innings in their last five games, pressed into early action after Stephen Strasburg (4 1/3 innings), Scott Olsen (1 1/3 innings) and Jason Marquis (4 innings) had each left prematurely in their last starts. And on Sunday, they were again asked to pick up four innings after a high pitch count - and an odd on-field delay - led manager Jim Riggleman to pull Strasburg after five innings against the Diamondbacks.
Riggleman let Strasburg hit for himself in the bottom of the fifth, only to pull the right-hander in the top of the sixth after four protestors, two of them carrying a sign protesting the 2011 All-Star Game in Arizona in light of the state's controversial anti-immigration law, ran onto the field. As some security guards stood in place and others chased the protestors around the outfield, Strasburg was sitting in the dugout waiting, and Riggleman decided he'd been sitting too long.
"Once that stuff happened on the field, it took a little while," Riggleman said. "I just was undecided as to whether I wanted him to go back out there anyway, and once we sat in there a little bit longer with the stuff going on, I just decided that, 'You know what? I'm not going to send him back out there.'"
That left Riggleman to turn to the Nationals' bullpen once again, with the game tied at three and four innings left to work. And the group delivered.
Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen combined for four shutout innings, holding Arizona down as the Nationals scored a pair of runs to win 5-3. The relievers helped the Nationals win two out of three against the Diamondbacks, and they proved again they're good enough to withstand the loss of Capps, the All-Star closer who was traded to Minnesota at the end of last month.
"It says a lot," Riggleman said. "That's a lot of power on that ballclub. ... When you're in a tie game, and you've got four more innings to play, it's not easy to hold that club down to nothing, and that's what our bullpen did."
The relievers have worked 52 2/3 innings in August, the most in baseball. But they've allowed just 19 earned runs, and struck out 61 against 23 walks.
Sean Burnett has been a big a part of that as anything; he's allowed four runs in 17 2/3 innings since the start of July, getting tougher on lefties as he introduces a sinker and showing he can work the late innings alongside Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
"He's been huge," Riggleman said. "Really, the difference has been that, in the last month, he's really been effective against lefties. If that's really what we're going to get right there, that type of pitching, that's pretty special. ... I feel very confident with him that he can pitch in any situation, middle of a game, later in a game or get the last out in the ninth."
The Nationals' bullpen hasn't reformed itself as rigidly as it existed before Capps' departure; Storen earned his second career save on Sunday (and his first in a game Strasburg started), but Burnett has also saved two games since the Capps trade. But Clippard, who pitched the sixth and seventh on Sunday after getting most of the setup work earlier this year, said it's working for the relievers.
"Capps just brought a little more structure, because we knew what to expect," Clippard said. "He was the late-inning guy, the closer. Right now, there's kind of been back-and-forth with who Riggs is going to go with. So there's a just a little bit less structure. But as relievers, especially in the big leagues, you have to be prepared the whole game for whatever happens. So I think it's helped us in that sense. We're ready at all times. We're kind of bearing down. And we don't get too lackadaisical down there. We're always kind of focused on what's going on, which is huge. Everybody seems to be kind of feeding off each other down there right now. We're just glad to get the job done, whenever we can."