Two years later, Nats face same bullpen mess, but in tougher division

NEW YORK - Max Scherzer had dominated, Anthony Rendon had homered and the Nationals had busted their way out to a double-digit lead on the road heading into the final innings. And then the majors' worst bullpen somehow turned that blowout win into a tension-filled bottom of the ninth that ended in an unlikely save situation.

Sound familiar? It should, because it just happened Sunday at Citi Field. It also happened July 15, 2017, at Great American Ball Park.

Yeah, the 2019 Nationals bullpen isn't making history. It's simply repeating it.

What happened Sunday during a 12-9 win over the Mets that had been a 12-1 game only a couple innings earlier, and what has been happening since this season began 11 days ago, has happened to this franchise before. And not very long ago.

The 2017 Nationals were in this exact same situation. They attempted to open the season without enough sure-fire options in their bullpen, counting on the likes of Blake Treinen, Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley to get the job done. They failed miserably but were saved by a potent lineup and dominant rotation that made up for it all and allowed the team to remain in contention until general manager Mike Rizzo swung a pair of July trades that brought in Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler.

Those three solidified what had been such a major problem and actually turned the Nats bullpen into a formidable force during the season's second half, helping propel the club to a division title.

Well, two years later we're right back where we started. The Nationals have a very good rotation a lineup that is averaging 5.75 runs per game. And they have an absolute train wreck of a bullpen that sports an unthinkable 10.80 ERA and has put an astounding 54 runners on base in only 23 1/3 innings.

And, just as Dusty Baker was forced to do in 2017, Davey Martinez is now forced to try anything and everything once a game reaches the seventh inning, all in the hope it somehow results in victory.

On Sunday, with Scherzer's lower right leg acting up in the bottom of the seventh (two innings after he was struck by a comebacker), that meant asking Matt Grace to make his sixth appearance in eight games. Grace promptly served up a three-run homer.

It meant giving Trevor Rosenthal an opportunity to get himself back on track after he failed to retire the first seven batters he faced this season. Handed a six-run lead in the eighth, Rosenthal promptly threw one strike, then six consecutive balls, one of those plunking a batter, two more sailing out of Kurt Suzuki's reach for wild pitches.

It meant pulling Rosenthal right then and there and not giving him an opportunity to figure things out before the game was lost. So Wander Suero pitched out of the jam and got the game into the ninth with a 12-6 lead intact.

Ross-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgIt meant giving Joe Ross his first opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen after his unexpected red-eye flight from Fresno to New York (via Chicago) and then watching as the right-hander surrendered a three-run homer to make it 12-9 and force Doolittle to enter and record the final outs of a game he never had any business appearing in.

And we haven't even figured out what the Nationals are going to do tonight when they face Bryce Harper and the Phillies in the launching pad known as Citizens Bank Park.

Here's what we do know: This team is probably going to have to find some relief help from outside the organization. Martinez can try to piecemeal it together with in-house options for only so long. Eventually, Rizzo is going to have to make the kind of moves he made in July 2017 to fortify this disastrous unit.

But here's what we also know: Unlike in 2017, when the division was weak and the Nats could hold a firm grasp on first place for three months in spite of their bullpen woes, the National League East in 2019 is an absolute bear of a division.

The Nationals are 4-4 and in fourth place, behind the Phillies (6-2), Mets (6-3) and Braves (5-4). They can't afford to wait around 'til July to do something and confidently believe they'll still be in the thick of contention.

No, something's going to have to happen soon, and Rizzo's options are severely limited. Even if ownership approves the signing of Craig Kimbrel and a busting of the luxury tax threshold for the third straight year, the All-Star closer would probably need a month to get ready after sitting out the entire winter and spring.

Trades are hard to make this early in the season, at least not without giving up big-time prospects to teams who know they hold all the cards in these negotiations.

In-house alternatives are sparse, aside perhaps from right-hander Austen Williams, who did not allow a run in spring training but has a 5.59 ERA in 10 career major league appearances.

As has been said all along, the Nationals are going to have to count on at least some of the current members of the bullpen to get the job done.

It sure feels like 2017 all over again, except for the state of the rest of the division. Sunday's game obviously felt familiar to that game in Cincinnati nearly two years ago. And you know what happened the day after the Nationals nearly blew that 10-run lead? They traded for Doolittle and Madson.

Will history repeat itself in the wake of this nearly blown 11-run lead?

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