Once a liability, Nationals bullpen has led the way in NLDS

LOS ANGELES - Shawn Kelley likes to walk around the clubhouse at Nationals Park wearing a T-shirt bearing a simple message: "Relievers are people, too."

Too often the guys who occupy big league bullpens are anonymous to the masses, a revolving door of arms brought into games only when the higher-profile starter can't do his job.

The game, though, is changing. Bullpens matter more than ever, and doubly so in the postseason, when it's not uncommon to see managers rely on relief corps to record 12, 15, even 18 outs to ensure victory.

And right now, there's no bullpen in baseball ensuring victory for its team more than the one employed by the Nationals.

They did it in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, keeping their teammates within a run all afternoon, even though it wound up being in vain. They did it in Game 2, bailing out Tanner Roark after an uncharacteristically brief start.

And they did it again today in Game 3, churning out 4 2/3 scoreless innings (most of it while protecting a one-run lead) in what became an 8-3 victory over the Dodgers that leaves this team on the cusp of uncharted waters.

Having now won two of three from Los Angeles, the Nationals get two shots to capture this series and advance to their first-ever National League Championship Series, beginning Tuesday afternoon in Game 4 at Dodger Stadium. And they have reached this juncture in no small part because of the work of that supposedly anonymous bullpen.

Kelley-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpg"Maybe we don't have the fancy names, the household names that other teams have," Kelley said. "But if you go back and you really look at our season, we've had some special seasons and some guys that have been really big this year."

He's got a point. The Nationals did, after all, rank second among all major league bullpens this season with a 3.37 ERA, third with a 1.19 WHIP, fifth with an opponents' OPS of .673.

Perhaps it was the ever-evolving nature of that group, with various pitchers coming and going, that obscured it. But fact is, this was and is a very good unit.

"I think it's just awesome to see, because there were doubters this season, as to the strength of our bullpen, and I think we're proving everyone wrong right now," left-hander Sammy Solis said. "I think going into the postseason, people probably questioned what we can do, but we're showing everybody right now that we're the real deal and we're here to finish up tomorrow."

In managing this group over the last four days, Dusty Baker has followed a mantra so key to October success but often ignored by fellow skippers: You can't just use relievers the same way you did the previous six months.

There are no "seventh-inning guys" in October. There are no guys held back because they appeared three of the last four days. There are, basically, no established rules.

"You've got to do what you've got to do to win today," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "You can't worry about having a guy available tomorrow. You just have to do what you've got to do. I think he's done a good job of that, obviously, in this series so far. I think more importantly, those guys out there are accepting whatever role they're told to do. Which is not as easy as it looks."

No, it's not. And it's been a common trait of this particular bullpen all season. Egos have been checked at the door. It's all about the greater good.

"Nobody cares about what role or what inning," Kelley said. "All year it's been about: 'I'm gonna go in there and I'm gonna get the outs Dusty asks me to get. And then the next guy's going to come in behind me and either clean up my mess, or continue where I left off.' It's a unique bullpen. I've never seen a group of guys that are so tight and care about each other and care about the team."

Never was that on display more than in Game 3, with four of the seven members of the postseason bullpen combining to toss 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. Solis got it started, notching five outs in the fifth and sixth innings. Oliver Perez recorded a big strikeout of Joc Pederson in the seventh before handing it over to Kelley, who retired all five batters he faced (three on strikeouts).

All of this was done with the Nationals clinging to a one-run lead, with zero margin for error. Mark Melancon was preparing to enter in the bottom of the ninth for the all-important save, but when Jayson Werth homered and Zimmerman doubled in two more runs, that 4-3 lead suddenly turned into an 8-3 lead and took the pressure off the closer.

Melancon still did his part, retiring the side on only nine pitches, leaving himself plenty fresh for Game 4.

And thus did the Nationals bullpen complete another spotless performance, building off its spotless performances from the previous two games. This group now has thrown a combined 12 1/3 innings in the NLDS. The Dodgers have yet to score a run off it.

How far the Nats relief corps has come.

"I think it gives us confidence," Werth said. "We're always in a game. We've never out of it. Even when we're behind, we can tack on runs when we're behind. I feel like the bullpen is going to hold up. And might not have been the case or the feeling in years past."

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