If asked what the biggest area of concern facing the Nationals is at this stage of the season, the most common answer likely would involve the bullpen, more specifically the closer's role.
It's not that Jonathan Papelbon's performance to date has been egregiously poor. He is 16-for-18 in save opportunities. He has a 3.28 ERA.
But there have been more than a couple of shaky outings along the way, some of which still ended in a successful save conversion (loading the bases in Philadelphia with nobody out, then escaping the jam) or even a win (giving up the go-ahead homer to Maikel Franco yesterday, then watching as the Nationals rallied to win in the bottom of the ninth).
And so the question naturally has come up recently about Papelbon's job security. A question that manager Dusty Baker essentially shot down this afternoon.
"There aren't that many lockdown closers around," Baker said. "That's a hard job. I think that's one of the hardest jobs there is, to take the final breath out of anybody and get those last three outs. ... A lot of guys, they can be in the set-up role, but they aren't very good in that closer role. And the thing of a closer is, it's like a cornerback. He can have a great whole game, and then he gets burned in the fourth quarter, and that's all they talk about. You don't talk about his saves. You talk about his blown saves. I guess that comes with the territory. I'm not defending, but the guy has 300-something (saves)."
Papelbon, who does rank 10th all-time with 365 saves, doesn't rank in the top 10 in any significant category among closers this season (anyone with at least 10 saves entering play Monday). His 3.28 ERA ranks 20th out of 27 who fit the description. He's 11th in saves but tied for seventh in blown saves. His 88.9 save percentage ranks 16th. His Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.60 ranks 19th. His .266 opponents' batting average and .738 opponents' OPS both rank 24th.
Baker pointed out that a good chunk of Papelbon's struggles have come, perhaps surprisingly, against the rebuilding Phillies. In six games against his former team, he has a 6.35 ERA and is 2-for-3 in save opportunities. In 25 games against everybody else, he has a 2.36 ERA and is 14-for-15 in save situations.
Papelbon also blew a save last September against the Phillies, who traded him to Washington in July.
"You don't know if that's psychological on his part or their part," Baker said. "If you take away the Philly games, he's almost been unflappable. Yesterday, he hung a slider, and that's what you're supposed to do with it. A lot of times if you're not locating or hanging a pitch, that's when you're trying too hard.
"Hank Aaron always told me the most dangerous pitcher was a relaxed pitcher. He'd go up there first and get all these hangers and nothing sinkers, and then I'd get up there and he'd say they're not afraid of you, the damage is done. ... Maybe he's not as relaxed against his former team, according to the Hank Aaron theory."
Baker was asked if he's ever thought about making a concerted effort not to use a particular player against a particular team that seems to have his number.
"People don't understand that there's certain psychological things that you have to have," he said. "You start chipping away at the guy's confidence, then you don't have the same guy. It's easy to say: 'Put somebody else in.' But then what happens when they don't do it. Do I go back and say: 'Hey, man, I was just kidding!'
"Until you find somebody better, this is what we have. Instead of getting on him, let's pull for him and send him some positive vibes. How many lockdown closers (are there)? He's a potential All-Star. ... You take away his saves, and where are we? He's one of ours. And until something else, if it doesn't happen, he's still one of ours."