Overworked relievers taking it day-by-day at end of long month

As they gathered at Nationals Park on Sunday morning, Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle did a quick analysis of their respective statuses for the upcoming series finale against the Diamondbacks. All three relievers have been getting plenty of work through the season's first month, but given the state of things only one of them could reasonably be given the day off.

Doolittle-Delivers-White-Sidebar.jpgSo who was it going to be? Kintzler had thrown 12 pitches Saturday, but none the previous three days. Madson had thrown both Friday (three pitches) and Saturday (16) and had recently needed to take a full week off after pitching three straight days. Doolittle, though, also had thrown Friday (eight pitches) and Saturday (13 pitches) and probably could have used the day off.

In the end, the trio understood there was no question who would get to rest.

"Yeah, we knew Madson was going to have the day," Kintzler said. "He can have it. He's the older guy. I think it just depends on who was stressed out the most going into it. Me and Doolittle weren't very stressed out going into the outing. Madson, obviously he threw a lot that one time in New York and he needed to recover for a while."

So it was that Nationals manager Davey Martinez - once Gio Gonzalez had completed seven strong innings - turned to Kintzler for the eighth and Doolittle for the ninth in his club's 3-1 victory.

"We were stretched out a little bit," Martinez said. "I talked to Kintzler and Doolittle before the game and said: 'If we're ahead, are you guys available?' They said that absolutely. It was good to see them two stepping up."

It's something of a daily ritual right now for a Nationals' bullpen that has been overworked but rarely gets a breather. Six of the team's last seven games have been decided by one or two runs, leaving Martinez with little choice but to keep relying on his three best relievers.

The workloads, though, are piling up. Doolittle has now appeared in 13 of the Nationals' 28 games. Kintzler and Madson each have appeared in 14. (Left-hander Sammy Solís leads the staff with 15 appearances.)

This rate, they all agree, is not sustainable. They know their limits, and they're fast approaching them.

"I think there's a red line as far as relievers' (appearances) per month," Kintzler said. "I think 14 or 15 is definitely a red line, or you might get repercussions for the next month. You definitely want to watch your workload when that starts happening. Obviously we've had a lot of one-run ballgames going on. It just is what it is, and you hope you can ride it out and hopefully it turns around."

If they were tired Sunday, they certainly didn't show it. Kintzler needed only seven pitches to get through the top of the eighth. Doolittle's fastball, which he used for 14 of his 15 pitches, averaged 94.2 mph (just 1 mph off his season average).

"They were both sharp today," catcher Matt Wieters said. "Doolittle had the fastball, and Kintzler didn't throw that many pitches to get it done. Everybody knows it's a little bit of a grind time here in April, but everybody knows we can get it done. That's the mentality going forward. Whatever we need to get a win."

With no more scheduled days off until May 14, there are no natural breaks forthcoming for anyone in the group. They'll have to go through the routine again this afternoon and figure out which one gets the night off (almost certainly Doolittle). Then they'll do it again Tuesday and each subsequent day.

There's only two things that could serve as a saving grace to the entire group: A complete game by the Nationals' starter (they have one so far, by Max Scherzer) or a blowout along the lines of Wednesday's 15-2 trouncing of the Giants to wrap up their West Coast trip.

"That's why San Francisco was great," Kintzler said. "The last game, I was like: 'This is amazing!' And then today, we were so close to getting tack-on runs. That does a lot for us, because we know we won't throw that day."

Game 29 lineups: Nats vs. Pirates (Suero promoted)
Opposite dugout: Pirates riding rollercoaster seas...

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