Bullpen proving to be Nats' most reliable unit early in season

It's been a while since the Nationals opened a season with a reliable bullpen. How long? Try five years.

Way back in 2016, if anyone can remember ancient history, Dusty Baker's relief corps enjoyed a dominant April. That group ended the season's opening month with a 2.53 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, led by Jonathan Papelbon's eight saves, Shawn Kelley's 0.00 ERA and contributions from the likes of Blake Treinen, Matt Belisle, Oliver Pérez and Yusmeiro Petit.

Yeah, things have changed just a bit since then.

Though they've managed to boast quality bullpens by the end of some subsequent seasons, the early season woes of the Nationals relief corps has become a constant theme. They ended April 2017 with a 5.70 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. In 2018, it was a 4.80 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. In 2019, it was a ghastly 5.95 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. And last summer, during the delayed and abbreviated season, the Nats bullpen ended August with a 4.33 ERA and 1.44 WHIP.

Which brings us to 2021. A lot of things haven't gone right for the Nationals so far, but the bullpen isn't one of them. This group, made up of a combination of returnees and newcomers, has become perhaps the most reliable portion of manager Davey Martinez's roster.

The total numbers (4.06 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) look pedestrian, but they include Luis Avilán's disastrous inning in relief of Stephen Strasburg in St. Louis last week. Throw out that one appearance - of course, you can't do that in real life, but stick with us here so we can make a point - and the Nats bullpen ERA plummets to 3.35 with a 1.08 WHIP.

That's very good.

Hand-Shakes-Hands-Avila-White-Sidebar.jpgThe two veterans who have been pitching the eighth and ninth innings have led the way. Daniel Hudson has allowed just one run and two hits in six innings to date, proving just as effective a setup man as he was a closer down the stretch in 2019. And Brad Hand, the biggest acquisition of the winter, hasn't given up a run in his first six appearances for the club, converting all three save opportunities, including both Tuesday and Wednesday's wins over the Cardinals.

But while the Nationals' World Series-winning bullpen saw Hudson and Sean Doolittle shoulder the vast majority of the load, this 2021 relief corps has been getting quality performances from nearly the entire group, even as the pieces have been changing every few days.

Wander Suero, before straining his oblique muscle last weekend, had a 1.42 ERA in eight appearances. Kyle Finnegan has given up a couple of home runs, but has pitched well overall. Likewise for lefty Sam Clay, who looks like a keeper for the long term. Austin Voth (one run in 4 2/3 innings) appears ready to make the full-time conversion from starter to reliever. And Ryne Harper and Kyle McGowin, despite shuttling back and forth from D.C. to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg, have done well when called upon.

"All those guys," manager Davey Martinez said when asked about his bullpen during a recent Zoom session. "They've pitched a lot so far, and they've kept us in ballgames, and we've won ballgames because of them as well. It takes all those guys down in the bullpen."

The one weak link to open the season was Tanner Rainey, who was slowed down this spring by muscle strain near his collarbone. The hard-throwing right-hander clearly didn't look up to speed when the regular season began, but he has seen his velocity tick up with each outing and on Wednesday had his best appearance to date, striking out three in a scoreless seventh inning.

"We got his arm slot up just a tad," Martinez said, referencing a mechanical tweak the coaching staff had Rainey incorporate. "He had a little more carry on his fastball (Wednesday), which is kind of nice. And his slider had that nice depth to it. That was good. Sometimes it takes the second outing to really hone in. He hasn't pitched a whole lot, but he was definitely good."

Suero's injury certainly will hurt the group in the long run. After appearing in eight of the Nationals' first 12 games - and warming up in the bullpen in two others - the rubber-armed righty succumbed to an oblique strain that will sideline him for a while.

"It's definitely a big hole to fill," said Hudson, who joked how when the bullpen phone rings, everyone down there just assumes Suero will be the one asked to warm up. "Wander goes out and takes the ball every single day and is usually pretty damn effective. It's a pretty big hole to fill, but I know guys are going to step up. The sooner we can get Wander back, the better as well."

The Nationals also are waiting for Will Harris to make his season debut after a bizarre series of events this spring - numbness in his right hand, a diagnosis of a blood clot in his arm, then a reversal of diagnosis from a specialist in St. Louis who said he was fine - forced him to the injured list. Harris is still building his arm back up at the alternate training site, but the club is hopeful to have him on the active roster sometime the relatively near future.

The real keys to the current bullpen, though, are the two trusted veterans at the back end. Hudson has returned strong from a shaky 2020, his fastball hitting 98 mph during Wednesday's appearance. And Hand, signed for $10.5 million to replace the departed Doolittle, has been exactly what the team expected once he was cleared to come out of quarantine during the season's first week.

With Rainey rounding into form, Martinez now believes he has a lockdown trio of arms to pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

"They're huge," the manager said. "We get the lead, you feel pretty good about those three guys coming in."

Workload, of course, could prove to be a problem. It has been an issue in previous years, when Martinez had little choice but to push Doolittle, Hudson and others to the limit early on when others struggled. The Nationals bullpen is averaging 3.6 innings per game so far. That's up from an average of 3.4 innings per game in 2020 and 3.1 in 2019.

"We've had a lot of innings so far," Hand said. "But there will be a point where the starters are carrying us, and we're begging for more work. Over the course of 162 games, they kind of even each other out."

As they've known from the outset, the Nationals will only go as far as their star-studded rotation takes them this year. But as they're also finding out, their less-heralded bullpen is capable of picking up the slack when needed.

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