The Nationals' bullpen problems last night seem to have NatsTown (can I still use that?) in a bit of a tizzy this morning. If you missed last night's 6-5, 10-inning loss to the Braves, the problem essentially boiled down to this:
* Jordan ZImmermann had given up a bloop single and a walk in the seventh, and had thrown 103 pitches through 6 1/3 innings. The Nationals were up 5-1, and manager Jim Riggleman decided to take him out.
* Sean Burnett walked Brooks Conrad (the Nationals were upset that ball four on a check swing wasn't strike three) and gave up a grand slam to Martin Prado.
* Tyler Clippard had pitched the last two nights, Todd Coffey had worked 1 2/3 innings the night before and Drew Storen was being saved in case the Nationals got the lead back.
* The Nationals didn't want to use Henry Rodriguez or Brian Broderick in a tie game, so Doug Slaten was asked to work longer in a game than he'd ever worked before. He eventually cracked in his third inning of work, walking a batter, giving up a sacrifice (Nate McLouth dropped his bat right in front of the ball, and was called out), intentionally walking another batter and allowing a walk-off single to Brian McCann.
There were essentially three things manager Jim Riggleman could have done differently: leave Zimmermann in to try and work out of the seventh-inning jam, use Rodriguez or Broderick once the Braves tied the game or used Storen with the game tied. Let's spend a minute looking at each possibility:
* Zimmermann is in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, and though it's convenient after the fact to say he should have stayed in the game, there was no logical reason to leave him in at the time, with a four-run lead and a reliever that the Nationals trust (Burnett) ready to go.
* Storen, for all intents and purposes, is the Nationals' closer. They may not want to say he is, but he's being used like one. That's why the distinction matters; if Storen is just another reliever the Nationals trust in close games, they might use him with the game tied. But he was being saved for a save situation. That's what you do with a closer.
* As for Broderick and Rodriguez ... as Adam Kilgore at the Washington Post mentioned this morning, they're both on the roster partially because the Nationals want to keep them and have little choice but to develop them in the majors; Broderick was a Rule 5 pick and can't go to the minors without being offered back to the Cardinals, and Rodriguez is out of minor league options. But if the Nationals want to develop them - and are going to use roster spots on them that could go to Collin Balester and/or Cole Kimball - they're probably going to have to let them pitch in close games at some point. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the game stayed tied into an 11th inning - I'll try to ask Riggleman today what he was planning if Slaten had made it through three innings.
Essentially, workloads and roles had reduced the Nationals to two relievers they preferred to use in a tie game last night. Part of the problem there is that this is a bullpen with two charges: win now and develop for the future. But part of the problem is also that the Nationals, quite frankly, have been in too many close games lately. That sounds farcical, but it's true; Coffey worked his 1 2/3 innings to keep the Nationals within striking distance on Wednesday, and Clippard finished Wednesday's game in the 11th inning after pitching with a one-run lead on Tuesday. The Nationals are trying to keep workloads manageable, with a pitching staff that's good enough to keep games close but not work into the late innings and an offense that typically doesn't score enough to split games open. That's a bad recipe for keeping relievers fresh, especially when there are only so many that they trust.
(There's something to be said for execution, too; a few you have mentioned that Burnett was nibbling around the plate when he was ahead in the count to Conrad, and Slaten's fastball was farther up and in than Ivan Rodriguez was set up. But while that could have stopped the problem last night, the larger issue was bound to come up sometime.)
So what's the fix? Riggleman could be more lenient with his starters' pitch counts - though taking Zimmermann out last night made sense - or he could ask his relievers to throw more. But with starting pitchers that typically don't work through the seventh inning and a bullpen that's set up with two goals, the manager is going to run into nights where he's got few places to go.