Spotlight will shine on Nationals lefties during NLDS

The Dodgers do many things well. They pitch well. They hit for power. They play good defense.

There is, however, one thing they really don't do well: hit left-handed pitchers.

No team in baseball was less productive against lefties than the Dodgers, whose .213 batting average was 21 points worse than anybody else in the majors, and whose .622 OPS was 55 points worse than anybody else in the sport.

And so the spotlight will shine brightly on few during the National League Division Series more than the left-handed portion of the Nationals bullpen. And these guys know it.

"It's no secret that they're left-handed heavy, as well as power-heavy from the left side," Sammy Solis said. "So I'm really hoping that our lefties in our bullpen get a chance to neutralize that. ... I think we need to be ready, no matter the inning and no matter the situation."

Solis-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgSolis is one of four lefties who appear to be in consideration for spots in the Nationals' NLDS bullpen, along with veterans Marc Rzepczynski, Oliver Perez and Sean Burnett. It's doubtful the team will be able to keep all four on the active roster, but it seems like a good bet that three will be dressed and available come Friday afternoon.

The decision, though, isn't as simple as just loading up with as many lefties as possible in what figures to be an eight-man bullpen.

"The matchup part of it is going to be important, but the performance part of it is also important," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "You're not going to take a lesser player just because he has one set of skills, like (being) left-handed, if you're not performing. It's well documented that left-handed pitching is important here, but you need to have quality pitches.

"I've seen (the Dodgers) many, many times, live and in person, and on film for countless hours now. If you don't have stuff and if you don't perform, they can beat you left-handed or right-handed."

The left side of the Nationals bullpen has been a work-in-progress all season. Perez and Felipe Rivero were the only southpaws on the opening day roster, but Solis joined them soon after that and quickly proved himself a valuable piece of the puzzle.

But over the summer, Perez turned ineffective, Solis landed on the disabled list and Rivero was traded to the Pirates for closer Mark Melancon. Throw in the changes made to the right side of the pen - most notably, the release of closer Jonathan Papelbon - and this is a relief corps that has survived a fairly significant makeover in the last six months.

"I think we've been through thick and thin together," Solis said. "I think we went through a lot of success early in the season. I would say we were probably the best bullpen in baseball. And we still are, in my opinion. We got roughed up a little bit in the middle of the season, later in the season. I think that's actually a good thing. I think we've faced some adversity, and we've overcome it. I think we're stronger now and ready for the postseason."

The Nationals bullpen finished the year with a 3.35 ERA, tied for the best mark in the majors along with the Dodgers of all teams. Lefties played a significant role in keeping that number down. Solis posted a 2.41 ERA in 37 games.

Rzepczynski had a 1.54 ERA in 14 games. Burnett retired 12 of the 14 left-handed batters he faced after his late-season promotion from Triple-A Syracuse.

"We do a pretty good job," said Perez, who has not surrendered a run since Aug. 23. "We had a couple injuries, but they're healthy now. We're ready, and we're all very excited to face the Dodgers in the first game."

Solis' return in the last week from shoulder inflammation was especially important. The 28-year-old made three appearances and let only two of the 11 batters he faced reach base (though one of those came around to score).

Was that enough work for Solis to be ready to play a role in the NLDS bullpen?

"Yeah, I think I just needed to get back up to game speed," he said. "Bullpens are great, but once you get out there, things start moving quicker. So I'm glad I got out there a couple times, got warm in the 'pen once and didn't go in. So I got my work in. I think I'm ready."

Now it's simply a matter of how manager Dusty Baker chooses to employ this group of lefties, trying to take full advantage of perhaps the Nationals' most favorable matchup of this series.

"I think it's going to be a key for us because we all saw what they did against left-handed pitching, at least numbers-wise what they did, during the year," Rzepczynski said. "We know they're a left-handed heavy lineup. They're great hitters, but having a couple guys back and having Sammy healthy is definitely key. If Dusty needs us to go in there early, we will. We're all just going to feed off each other and be ready to pitch."

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