SAN FRANCISCO - When the Nationals assembled their bullpen this spring - adding hard-throwing righty Henry Rodriguez to a group that was among the league's best in 2010 and putting Cole Kimball, another right-hander with high-90s heat, in the mix to join the group eventually - they thought their relievers would again be the strength of their team.
And 60 games into the 2011 season, the Nationals have few relievers they don't think are throwing well. But, as left-hander Sean Burnett put it after a 13-inning loss to the Giants, this is a results-oriented league. Numbers matter. And right now, the numbers indicate the Nationals' relievers haven't been good.
They've allowed 45 of 122 inherited runners to score this year; their inherited runners scoring rate of 38.9 percent is the second-worst in the National League. They've blown 12 of 27 saves; that rate is the second-highest in the NL. Both of those numbers got worse on Monday night, when the bullpen inherited a 4-1 lead for the second straight day, only to allow three inherited runners to score. The Giants tied the game, and eventually won 5-4 in 13 innings.
Most of the Nationals' problems have centered around two relievers - Doug Slaten and Burnett, who have each let 50 percent or more of their inherited runners score. Slaten is on the disabled list with left elbow ulnar neuritis, but Burnett's undoing might be more concerning. He was probably the Nationals' best reliever last year, and has let 12 of 22 inherited runners score this year - even though many of those hits continue to be well-placed ground balls or bloops down the line, like the two-run single he gave up to Aubrey Huff to tie the game.
"You've just got to keep pitching," Burnett said. "That's what I've been telling myself, and that's what I've been told, is just keep trying to make pitches. That's the frustrating part - I feel like I'm throwing the ball really well, and I've got nothing to show for it. It's results-oriented, and my results suck."
What can the Nationals do to fix it? They'd be helped immensely if Burnett figures things out; he's been relegated to the role of a lefty specialist, especially with Slaten hurt, and he was at his best last year when he was shutting down right-handers. And Drew Storen is also going through a rough stretch; he didn't give up a run Monday, but allowed three on Sunday in a blown save against the Diamondbacks.
The numbers, though, are hard to dismiss. And until they get cleaned up, what was supposed to be the Nationals' biggest strength will continue to look like one of their biggest weaknesses.