ATLANTA - Stretches of 20 consecutive games, particularly at this juncture of the season, are taxing on everybody on a ballclub, but the effect probably is most noticeable on a bullpen.
And it's quite noticeable on the Nationals' bullpen right now.
Nine days into their 20-days-without-a-break stretch, Nats relievers look, at times, like they're just trying to hang on and survive. They have pitched a combined 31 1/3 innings (an average of 3.48 per game) and have allowed 22 runs (18 earned) on 30 hits, 14 walks and two hit batters.
The problem has been particularly acute the last two nights, when the Nationals' bullpen has helped turn leads of five or more runs into close contests that ultimately required closer Mark Melancon to pitch in save situations.
Dusty Baker isn't necessarily surprised by this development, though. He warned against the possibility earlier in the week, after his relievers were needed for 16 1/3 innings at Coors Field, leaving them behind the 8-ball before they even arrived in Atlanta.
"I'm concerned, but I said that in Colorado," Baker said. "You've got to be aware of the next series after Colorado, because they beat your bullpen up, even if you beat them. So, I'm not that concerned about it."
The Nationals won Saturday night's game, but Baker was forced to use five relievers to record the final eight outs against the Braves, with Melancon ultimately facing the tying runner in what ended as a harrowing 11-9 victory.
All of this could leave the Nats' bullpen shorthanded for today's series finale at Turner Field. Melancon has pitched three days in a row. Blake Treinen, Koda Glover and Matt Belisle have all pitched two days in a row. Shawn Kelley has pitched three of the last four days.
Plus, there's no break in sight. The Nationals fly back north tonight and play the next four nights against the Orioles and their potent lineup, then three more against the Rockies before hitting the road again and traveling to Philadelphia. Only after that series at Citizens Bank Park will the club finally get to enjoy an off-day.
In other words, if ever a team needed a complete game - or something close to it - today might just be the day. All eyes will be on Gio Gonzalez when he takes the mound this afternoon.