Top stories of 2017: The bullpen makeover

As we count down the final days of 2017, we're counting down the most significant stories of the year for the Nationals. Some are positive. Some are negative. All helped define this baseball season in Washington. We'll reveal two per day through New Year's Eve, beginning right now with ...

No. 8: The bullpen makeover

The Nationals cruised through the first half of the 2017 season. They took over first place in the National League East Division on April 18 and never gave it back. They carried a 9 1/2-game lead into the All-Star break in mid-July, with no reason to believe they would so much as let anybody else even come within sniffing distance of them the rest of the way.

And yet the first half of the season felt like a nightly exercise in torture for the Nationals and their fans, all because of the one flaw of their roster: the back end of their bullpen.

After watching Mark Melancon depart for the Giants, then Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman and Greg Holland all sign elsewhere over the winter, the Nats decided to go into the 2017 season with no experienced closer. On the final day of spring training, then-manager Dusty Baker announced Blake Treinen would pitch the ninth inning, with Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover holding the primary setup roles.

What transpired over the next three months was a horror show the likes of which hadn't been viewed in these parts since the local ballclub routinely lost 100 games a year. Treinen lasted only two weeks on the job, replaced by Kelley, who soon went on the disabled list and forced the Nats to turn to Glover, who also went on the DL and forced the Nats to turn to a revolving door of inadequate arms just to cobble together the final innings of games.

No lead was safe, a fact that was taken to the extreme on July 15 in Cincinnati, when the Nationals carried a 10-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth yet still needed to summon lefty Matt Grace to record the final three outs to preserve a 10-7 win and earn the first save of his career.

Sean-Doolittle-throwing-gray-sidebar.jpgTwelve hours later, Mike Rizzo finally decided it was time to address the problem. The general manager, patiently waiting for the trade market to come to him, swung yet another in his long line of deals with the Athletics, acquiring both Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson for Treinen and two minor leaguers.

Two weeks after that, Rizzo pulled off another trade, getting Brandon Kintzler from the Twins for another minor leaguer.

The Nationals bullpen transformed almost instantaneously from the worst in the majors to one of the best. Before Doolittle and Madson arrived, Nats relievers ranked last in baseball in ERA (5.23), 29th in WHIP (1.46) and 21st in save percentage (61.1 percent). After the trade, Nats relievers ranked fifth in ERA (3.40), fourth in WHIP (1.16) and first in save percentage (88.9 percent).

Just like that, what had been the team's biggest problem in the season's first half became one of its biggest strengths in the second half.

And with both Doolittle and Madson already under contract, and with Kintzler now re-signed as a free agent, the Nationals will enter 2018 with a wholly different confidence in their bullpen, thanks to the deft midsummer work of their GM.

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