MIAMI - The Nationals' first two games in Florida doubled as a kind of stress test for their bullpen, and by the time players arrived at Sun Life Stadium on Thursday afternoon for the last of three games with the Marlins, it appeared there were legitimate fissures in the group's composition.
Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Sean Burnett were doing what was expected of them, putting up a 0.93 ERA in the first five games of the season. But behind them, the rest of the Nationals' relievers had a 15.67 ERA, looking like they didn't have enough stuff to consistently match up with major league hitters. And when reliever Henry Rodriguez began a rehab assignment at Double-A Harrisburg, pitching two perfect innings and firing fastballs that several observers saw clocked at 102 mph, some were already wondering how soon a change would happen.
On Thursday, though, the group made about as strong of a statement as it could about what it could do. And after watching leads slip away for two days, the Nationals stole a game from the Marlins primarily because of their relievers' resolve.
The Nationals' bullpen turned in six shutout innings in a 5-3, 11-inning win over the Marlins, allowing just two hits in that time, walking none, striking out eight and throwing 50 of 65 pitches for strikes. It's possible the group won't have a better game all season.
"It's exciting," Storen said. "That's part of that brotherhood we have there. It's just a big group. ... That's a big pickup for us to end that series on a good note."
Right down the line, each reliever was at his best: Clippard came in with none out in the sixth inning, inheriting runners on second and third. He gave up a RBI groundout to Emilio Bonifacio on a pitch he thought he misplaced; he threw a low fastball, rather than the higher version that's become his trademark swing-and-miss pitch. But he struck out the next two batters, threw a well-timed pitchout to catch Hanley Ramirez stealing and fanned Gaby Sanchez to end the seventh inning with the game tied.
He's become the reliever the Nationals call on just about every time they need hitters to swing and miss, and when he pumps in strikes, his gangly delivery can be tough for pitchers to track. His fastball can flatten out when he overthrows, like he did to both Bonifacio and Ramirez, but he's become almost indispensable to the Nationals' bullpen.
"If you need a strikeout, he's the guy," Riggleman said. "He did a great job. ... It's a second-and-third, nobody out. To come out of it with one run, you'd take that every time."
If Clippard's performance was an example of the things he does best, Storen's was a testament to what he's worked all spring to correct. He threw 13 fastballs in his 19 pitches, and all but one was a strike. And his slider, when used as a secondary weapon, became even more effective; he threw two in a row that nipped the inside corner of the plate and froze Mike Stanton for a ninth-inning strikeout.
While Storen was laboring through the spring, pumping his fastball in situations where his instincts told him to throw a slider, he thought about the payoff waiting for him on the other side.
"It's really what it is," Storen said. "I was really happy with where I was throwing it. I was moving in and out and changing eye level. I took a piece out of Clip's book and elevated a fastball on a guy. That's just something I didn't really do last year. I lived off my slider. I tried to do it a little bit last year, and it didn't work. I can't really take the credit for that; I've had a lot of guys help me. It's down to that bullpen brotherhood that's really come through and helped me a lot."
Burnett, as usual, was simply efficient, throwing 15 pitches to four batters and bookending his 11th-inning save with two groundouts. But if there's one reliever to whom the performance meant the most, it was Coffey.
He'd given up three runs in his last two outings, putting more batters on base than he'd retired. The Nationals signed the former Brewers reliever to a one-year, $1.3 million deal in hopes he could be the kind of sturdy veteran Joel Peralta was in 2010, but he started the year wobbling. After allowing two runs and getting taken out Wednesday, he complained to umpire Tim Tschida about his strike zone and was ejected. But on Thursday, Coffey was right back in a pressure situation, pitching a perfect 10th to keep the game tied.
"That's the great thing about (baseball), especially being a bullpen guy," Coffey said. "You can go out, have a horrible night the night before, but guess what? You've got the next night to redeem yourself."
He threw two types of pitches in the 10th - a slider that sat around 84-85 mph, and a fastball that topped out at 92 mph. It wasn't riveting stuff, but Coffey threw first-pitch strikes to two of the three hitters he faced, and after getting to a three-ball count on Ramirez, he went slider-fastball-slider to strike out the All-Star shortstop.
"We have the trust in him to do that," Storen said. "It's going to end up happening. We knew he would turn it around. He came out, and pitched great."
And after a trying week, the Nationals' bullpen had one to feel good about.
"That's what we're capable of," Clippard said. "There's a lot of good arms down there, and that's what you're going to be seeing all year."