ATLANTA - The Nationals solved their ninth-inning problem when they acquired Mark Melancon at the trade deadline. But as the regular season reaches its final two weeks, they're still trying to figure out who's going to get through the eighth inning to get the ball to their new closer.
Shawn Kelley held a firm grasp on the primary setup role through most of the season, but manager Dusty Baker has tried out some new arms in the last few weeks, with mixed results.
Rookie Koda Glover struggled in his two eighth-inning appearances, giving up a home run in each. Blake Treinen got the nod during Friday night's victory over the Braves, though, and struck out three batters sandwiched around a double.
All of this leaves Baker still playing the mix-and-match game, picking the reliever he believes is best-suited for that particular situation on that particular night.
"I mean, you wish you had one guy that you would say, 'OK, this is my eighth-inning guy. This is my so-and-so,' " the manager said. "But we have two or three eighth-inning guys. Or four, really."
Indeed, Baker is willing to use left-hander Marc Rzepczynski if the situation calls for it. Acquired from the A's in August, Rzepczynski has been quite effective against left-handed batters, who are just 1-for-15 with seven strikeouts against him.
Fellow lefty Sean Burnett, a September callup, has been just as effective, holding left-handed batters to one hit in 10 at-bats since his promotion.
Kelley has held the eighth inning job most of the season, though the veteran has been more effective against righties (.190/.213/.364) than lefties (.247/.304/.562).
Treinen, on the other hand, has been equally as effective against hitters from each side of the plate, with righties batting .219/.288/.299 and lefties batting .219/.345/.384. That improvement against left-handed hitters has helped convince Baker to start using him in bigger situations, no matter the batter.
"The improvement is in his mindset and confidence," Baker said. "I think that's where I see the most improvement. I mean, when you're a young kid, you come to the big leagues, you think you know what you can do but you really don't know until you do it. ...
"And then we were forced to take him out against lefties, because they were hitting him hard. And then he made some adjustments. I can't tell you what they are, because the other lefties are going to be listening to this. He made some adjustments, but it starts in your mindset and your confidence, I think."
Update: The Nationals have officially activated Joe Ross off the 60-day DL to start today's game. Needing to make a corresponding move to clear space on their 40-man roster for Ross, the Nats have designated minor league infielder Chris Bostick for assignment.
Update II: With three innings in the books, the Nationals trail 1-0. Ross has looked pretty good, striking out five without any walks. His fastball has been 93-95 mph, and his slider has had good break. Ross has allowed six singles so far, including Jace Peterson's RBI hit in the second, but he has thrown 38 of 51 pitches for strikes. He also has one of the Nats' two hits off Matt Wisler. Clint Robinson had the other, but he was quickly erased on Wilson Ramos' double play grounder.
Update III: Dusty Baker said he was likely to keep Ross to three innings, and sure enough, when the bottom of the fourth arrived, it was Reynaldo Lopez taking the mound. Ross did what he needed to today. His velocity was good. His command was good. All things considered, this was a good start to his return. Lopez, however, gave up two quick runs in the bottom of the fourth via two hits and a walk. And with the Nats lineup unable to do much so far against Wisler, they're staring at a 3-0 deficit after four innings.
Update IV: The good news: The Nats scored in the top of the sixth, thanks to Trea Turner's triple and Jayson Werth's double. The bad news: The heavens opened up here, so now they're in a rain delay with the Nationals trailing 3-1.
Update V: After a delay of 1 hour, 7 minutes, we're back. It took a lot of work by the grounds crew to get the infield playable again. The batter's box pretty much turned to mud. Ian Krol has taken over for Wisler on the mound, with Bryce Harper at the plate and Werth on second base with the Nats still trailing 3-1 in the sixth.
Update VI: The Nats got another run in the top of the sixth when Harper blooped a single to left-center (snapping an 0-for-17 slump) to score Werth. That trimmed the deficit to 3-2. But relievers Rafael Martin and Marc Rzepczynski combined to give up three runs in the bottom of the inning, so now the Nats are trailing 6-2 after six. And there appears to be another major storm cell fast approaching from the west.
Update VII: Guess what, everybody? We're in another rain delay! Joe West called for the tarp with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, the Nats still trailing 6-2. We'll see if they attempt to resume this time. I'm thinking there would be plenty of people here who wouldn't object to the game being called. Stay tuned.
Update VIII: This game has been called on account of rain. It's an official game. The Nats lose 6-2 in seven innings. They lead the Mets by eight games with 13 to play. Their magic number remains six.