Nats bullpen has gone from mess to elite in three weeks

When the Nationals left Wrigley Field on July 19, they did so with a bullpen in shambles.

Hunter Harvey had just joined an injured list that already included Carl Edwards Jr. The rest of the group featured one established late-inning arm in Kyle Finnegan, a once-promising setup man now in the midst of massive slump in Mason Thompson and a bunch of other inexperienced and ineffective pitchers who had just endured through a nightmare of a series.

Over the course of their last two games against the Cubs, Nationals relievers had collectively surrendered 20 earned runs on 18 hits and seven walks in only 5 2/3 innings of work. They twice turned competitive, low-scoring games into lopsided blowouts.

At that point, all Davey Martinez could do was acknowledge the situation he was in, and hope things would improve with time and experience.

“They’re going to get another opportunity,” the manager insisted after an embarrassing 17-3 loss. “Many more opportunities. Hopefully they bounce back and learn from today.”

Well, here we are three weeks later, and lo and behold you won’t believe what’s happened. The Nationals have won 11 of their last 16 games, and they’ve done so with one of the most effective bullpens in the majors.


During this 16-game stretch that began July 21 against the Giants, Nats relievers have produced a collective 2.39 ERA. That’s best in the National League during that span, third-best in the majors. They’ve also delivered an impressive 1.139 WHIP, 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings and only five home runs surrendered across 52 2/3 innings.

How in the world did they do it? With an ever-changing cast, the emergence of some new faces and the dominance of their one and only constant.

Near the top of the list is Jordan Weems, who had been roughed up by the Cardinals for four runs and then was part of the Wrigley Field implosions days later. Since then, the right-hander has delivered 10 consecutive scoreless outings, striking out more batters (11) than he’s let reach base (eight). The 30-year-old right-hander, who spent most of April and May at Triple-A Rochester, has suddenly ascended into Martinez’s top eighth-inning reliever.

Weems is not alone. Andres Machado, twice designated for assignment but brought back to the majors in the last eight months, owned an 8.10 ERA one week ago. Then he turned in four straight scoreless outings in six days, including all three games of the Nationals’ sweep in Cincinnati, pumping out unhittable 97-mph sinkers in on batters’ hands with apparent ease.

Then there are the rookie left-handers being thrown into the fire and surviving. Jose A. Ferrer has retired 13 of his last 19 batters faced, stranding all six runners he inherited. Joe La Sorsa has churned out seven consecutive scoreless appearances, retiring 20-of-23 batters. And on Sunday, the newest member of the bullpen (Robert Garcia) debuted in grand style, tossing two scoreless innings to preserve a 5-3 lead and get the game into Weems’ hands in the eighth.

None of these guys was on the Opening Day roster. Only one reliever from that day still remains, and he has quietly become one of the most dominant late-inning relievers in baseball.

Finnegan sometimes gets labeled as a good, but inconsistent, pitcher. He seems better suited to pitch as a setup man or fireman who can escape a jam in the seventh or eighth inning than a traditional closer who doesn’t take the mound until the ninth. His blown saves are easily recalled, because they’re usually quite dramatic.

Here’s the thing, though: They’re few and far between. And they’re hardly ever happening these days.

With another scoreless ninth Sunday, Finnegan notched his 18th save and delivered his 10th consecutive scoreless appearance. He’s allowed two runs in his last 22 games, good for an 0.74 ERA.

But really, Finnegan has done this nearly the entire season. Throw out the first week of April, when he had two notable blowups against the Braves and Rays, and Finnegan has been brilliant since. He now owns a 1.54 ERA over his last 44 appearances, with a WHIP of 1.001 and more strikeouts (47) than innings pitched (46 2/3).

Those are the numbers of an elite closer. And they’ve remarkably become the norm for just about everyone in the Nationals bullpen over a three-week stretch nobody saw coming.

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