No closer? No problem, insist members of Nats bullpen

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Shawn Kelley doesn't know who the Nationals closer is going to be to start the season. Neither does Blake Treinen nor Joe Nathan nor Joe Blanton nor Dusty Baker. (Well, maybe Baker knows deep down who he intends to have pitching the ninth inning, but he's publicly insisting that decision hasn't been made yet.)

To outsiders, this appears to be cause for concern, maybe even a major problem. How can a team as good as the Nationals, a team trying to win its fourth division title in six years and advance in the postseason for the first time, not have an established closer?

To those inside the clubhouse, especially those who make up the back end of this bullpen, there is no concern at all.

Blake-Treinen-throwing-white-sidebar.jpg"We're all going to get our chance to throw in a game," Treinen said. "I don't think it matters when you throw. I think all of us would be lying to say we wouldn't be excited to have that opportunity in the ninth. But at the same time, it's not going to change our preparation for the season. It's not going to change how we go out there and try to get three outs as quick as possible."

Last week's signing of Blanton to a one-year, $4 million contract all but signaled the Nationals will enter the season without acquiring an experienced closer. They will go with what they have, whether moving setup men Kelley or Treinen into the role or throwing rookie Koda Glover to the wolves or taking a chance on the 42-year-old Nathan.

It's by no means ideal, but it's not causing any panic among the Nationals themselves, who look not at the lack of a proven ninth-inning guy but at the deep corps of quality relievers they have from which to choose a closer.

"We feel good about the guys that we're going to run out there," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Let's not forget, we were No. 2 in baseball last year with just about the same components of relievers."

Indeed, the Nationals did rank second in the majors in bullpen ERA at 3.37, barely behind the Dodgers at 3.35. So why do so many people view relief pitching as this team's biggest weakness?

It probably has to do with the ever-revolving door in the ninth inning, which in the last 2 1/2 years alone has turned from Rafael Soriano to Drew Storen to Jonathan Papelbon to Mark Melancon.

"It's just funny," Treinen said of the criticism. "Even last year, we had a proven closer on our team, and people were still talking about it. And then we go and get Mark Melancon, and people were still talking about it. You're never going to please everybody. And if you're going to buy into what people say, then you're looking at the wrong thing.

"So for us, we don't really pay attention to it. We hear about it when people ask us questions. But outside of that, we just keep our heads down, go out there and compete our tails off. I think that's what we try to do and what we were able to do. And I think that's why we were able to have success. We didn't put any extra pressure on ourselves. We know we're here for a reason. They trust us in certain situations for a reason."

That mindset is helping this spring, because none of the potential candidates to close is trying to outpitch anybody else.

"We're not really looking at it as a competition amongst each other," Kelley said. "We're just trying to get ourselves ready, get each other ready for the season in whatever roles. We're motivated. We want to get back to the playoffs. We want to go to the World Series. So we're doing what we have to do right now."

In the end, Nationals relievers insist, it's not about who ends up recording all the saves but how many of them contribute to a team playing deep into October.

Perhaps then, at last, the stigma of the Nationals bullpen problem will been gone.

"We're pulling for each other," Treinen said. "At the end of the day, we're all just trying to get outs and give our team the best chance of winning and holding leads and keeping margins small. We're pretty blessed to have a good ... not good, a great group of guys in the bullpen."

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