Late-summer acquisitions have boosted bullpen

PHILADELPHIA - The Nationals entered late July with a bullpen that, while successful in the big picture, featured some significant question marks.

Did they need a new closer? Did they need more reliable left-handed help? Did they need a burst of energy from another young arm?

One month later, as the calendar now shifts from August to September, the Nationals bullpen has been tweaked. General manager Mike Rizzo addressed all three of those issues, and the results (so far) have been positive.

Jonathan Papelbon is long gone, replaced in the ninth inning by Mark Melancon, who has been everything the Nats wanted in a lockdown closer. Marc Rzepczynski, a recent left-handed acquisition, has impressed in the brief time he has been here. And Koda Glover has provided that burst of energy, a young flamethrower who manager Dusty Baker hopes can handle the fire and pitch in big situations down the stretch.


Put that all together, and the Nationals bullpen leads the National League in ERA (3.33) while ranking third in WHIP (1.21).

"I think the core group of guys are great," Rzepczynski said. "We've got a lot of old guys, and the young guys kick in, too. ... We just have a lot of veteran guys at the back end like Mark, who's unbelievable, and feed down from there."

It all starts with Melancon right now, and the Nationals couldn't be happier how their new closer has transitioned into the role following his July 31 acquisition from the Pirates.

Melancon has made 15 appearances for the Nats over the last month, surrendering only one run, eight hits and two walks in 13 2/3 innings. He's 7-for-7 in save opportunities and has brought peace of mind to the ninth inning, something that couldn't be said for his predecessor (who still remains unemployed following his release three weeks ago).

The acquisition of Melancon did cost the Nationals a promising young left-hander in Felipe Rivero, who has been equally dominant for Pittsburgh since the trade (one earned run, 23 strikeouts in 15 innings). The club hoped it could get by the rest of the way with veteran lefty Oliver Perez and rookie Sammy Solis, but Perez has struggled mightily and Solis has disappeared on the disabled list with his second bout of shoulder inflammation this season.

So Rizzo was forced to make an August waiver trade for Rzepczynski, a 31-year-old veteran with prior World Series experience (with the 2011 Cardinals). Rzepczynski has quickly settled in here, giving up zero earned runs in his first four appearances and retired 8-of-10 left-handed batters he's faced. He also has induced two double plays, including a key one in the ninth inning of Wednesday night's 2-1 victory over the Phillies.

"You read the stats, and this guy, I think he's second in baseball in groundballs," manager Dusty Baker said. "And that's what we got. ... He's been in pressure situations before. He's probably pitching a little longer than he was in Oakland. But he's performing well for us."

Glover, meanwhile, has dazzled with his electric arm since joining the big league bullpen after a rapid ascension through the Nationals farm system. The 23-year-old, drafted only last summer out of Oklahoma State, has given up earned runs in only two of his 11 appearances to date.

The Nationals were a bit surprised that Glover, with an upper-90s fastball and a sharp breaking ball, struck out only one of the first 22 major league batters he faced. But since then, he has struck out nine of the 23 batters that have stepped in against him, giving Baker reason to believe he could become quite a weapon for his team in September and perhaps beyond.

"He's a warrior," Baker said. "He's strong-willed. Strong-minded. I can tell he's brave. He's not afraid of anything. ... I'm hoping Koda comes up big the same way Frankie Rodriguez came up big in the 2002 World Series against us. He pitches far beyond his age, and we really haven't seen the best of him."

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