Nats struggling to cobble together bullpen with Papelbon out

When Jonathan Papelbon landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career 10 days ago, it was viewed in some corners as a potential addition by subtraction, given the veteran closer's oft-shaky outings that seemed to feature more hard-hit balls than swings and misses.

Dusty Baker knew better. Whatever heart palpitations Papelbon may cause his manager at times, he more than makes up for with experience and the domino effect he has on the rest of the Nationals bullpen.

"I think the people that were getting on Papelbon were wishing Papelbon was back right now," Baker said Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, before his team lost another game late in gut-wrenching fashion. "You have to be careful what you wish for. What Pap does is, he puts everybody else in order and in place in the sequence we use them in a game."

Indeed, Papelbon's injury - a strained right ribcage muscle - forced the Nationals not only to find a new closer, but then to find a new setup man once Shawn Kelley was moved from the eighth inning to the ninth.

Combine that with some recent struggles by the likes of Felipe Rivero, Blake Treinen and Oliver Perez, and suddenly Baker found himself with perhaps only two relievers he could trust to pitch big innings late in games: Kelley and young left-hander Sammy Solis, who has been thrust into the eighth-inning role and so far has been successful.


Solis' emergence - he has a 1.52 ERA and only 12 hits allowed in 23 2/3 innings - has been a positive development for the Nationals, but there haven't been many others. Since June 12, when Papelbon last appeared in a game, the Nats bullpen collectively sports a 4.67 ERA and three losses suffered after blowing leads in the eighth inning or later.

For comparison's sake: Nationals relievers had a collective 3.08 ERA before the Papelbon injury, second-best in the NL.

"There's all kinds of steps throughout the season where our bullpen is going to learn what we're made of," said Papelbon, who continues to travel with the club while rehabbing. "You go through the ups and downs to hopefully help us understand who we are going to be in the end."

Though Wednesday night's game ended in disastrous fashion, with Kelley charged with a blown save after Michael A. Taylor's error in center field turned Yasiel Puig's single into a Little League walk-off homer, there were some encouraging developments earlier. Perez and Rivero each faced two batters late in a tight game and each retired both of them, a big step in the wake of their recent struggles.

Solis continues to seize his surprise opportunity in a setup role. And jack-of-all-trades Yusmeiro Petit continues to do whatever is asked of him, and do it quite well.

That doesn't mean Baker has been looking at this an opportunity to find out what his untested relievers are made of when pressed into more significant roles.

"Nope, I'd rather not," the manager said. "I don't have any choice. I don't look at it like that, but I'd rather not. It took us a while to get to that point of knowing what we had and where guys were going to be used. But it's also something that rarely do you go through a season without having to put guys in different positions. You just deal with it."

Even before Papelbon went down, the question had been raised whether the Nationals needed to be seeking more bullpen help in advance of next month's trade deadline. That chatter has only increased in the last week, given the circumstance this team now finds itself in.

But to those who think a significant move could be in the works sometime soon, Baker has some words of caution.

"I mean, they're looking," he said. "But right now, it's very difficult to make deals because of the second wild card team. There are teams that in the past would have been ready to sell right now, but a lot of teams are still in it. ... It's not that easy now to make deals."

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