If the Nationals are going to go well above the .500 mark, as manager Davey Johnson hopes they will, and if they're going to win most of their games by a narrow margin, as they've done all season, they're going to need to spread out the workload in their bullpen.
That's what Johnson was initially trying to do in the bottom of the eighth inning last night, when he delayed a call to the bullpen to get closer Drew Storen warming up with a one-run lead. Storen had worked in four of the Nationals' last six games, and had pitched in 42 of the Nationals' first 87 games overall.
"My closer, he's on a pace - if I kept him on it - to pitch probably 70-some (games), and this is basically his first year of closing," Johnson said. "That's not what I want to do to him. He's probably fully capable of doing it. But he has a lot of innings."
So Johnson didn't order for the call to get Storen, hoping to keep Henry Rodriguez in the game after he'd thrown just 19 pitches in the eighth inning. He eventually changed his mind, and Storen got his 22nd save of the season, but Johnson was still looking for an another option beside Storen after the game.
"If you're going to be 10, 20, 30 games over .500, you have to have somebody (else)," Johnson said. "Two or three of my closers, when we're on a roll, have come to me and said, 'Hey Skip, I need a day off.' I want to groom that guy that can come in there and pick up the slack."
During Johnson's first five years with the Mets, when he won 90 games or more each season, he had two pitchers with more than 15 saves each year. The Nationals aren't on a pace to win 90, but with as many close games as they've played (they're up to 33 one-run games now), they're asking for a lot of high-pressure work from their bullpen each night.
And when Johnson postponed his call for Storen, he said bullpen coach Jim Lett told him his closer was a little miffed about it.
"My favorite thing in the world is to pitch the ninth inning, but I understand that Henry pretty much dominated the eighth," Storen said. "Competitively, I wanted to be out there, but I understood. I was just fired up anyway. ... I'll only say something if I'm sore. I'm feeling good. But I appreciate the fact he was looking out for me."
The way the Nationals' bullpen has been pitching lately, Johnson might have the arms to give Storen a break. The Nationals' relievers have thrown 10 2/3 innings in the series against the Cubs, and have yet to give up a run. The last time they allowed a run in a game the Nationals won was June 24, and in this series, every pitcher in their bullpen has at least one scoreless appearance.
"There's a lot of great arms out there," Johnson said. "They're just now establishing some roles for the late innings. We have (Sean) Burnett, Clip (Tyler Clippard), Storen, but the other side of the bullpen - (Todd) Coffey, Rodriguez, (Ryan) Mattheus - is looking pretty strong."
Johnson said he would have been comfortable with Rodriguez in the ninth, and despite throwing a wild pitch that put Reed Johnson on second with none out in the eighth, he struck out the final three batters of the inning, freezing Geovany Soto on a nasty slider to end the eighth.
Whether it's Rodriguez, Clippard or someone else, expect Johnson to be looking for another pitcher who can handle the ninth. He knows it's necessary if he wants to win a bunch of games and keep his closer in good health.
"That's the only way you can run off a long winning streak," he said. "You've got to have both sides of the 'pen working."