While lineup soars, bullpen continues to concern Nationals

The Nationals lineup, in case you hadn't heard, is really good. As the calendar shifts from April to May, the Nats as a team lead the majors in runs, hits, doubles, RBIs, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. And on an individual level, either Ryan Zimmerman or Bryce Harper now leads the majors in runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.

What's not to like about this team? Well, besides the bullpen.

Not to burst everybody's bubble with Sunday's record-smashing, 23-5 victory over the Mets still fresh, but the Nationals relief corps remains the club's biggest problem area.

Blake-Treinen-throwing-white-sidebar.jpgThe Nats bullpen enters May sporting a 5.70 ERA, worst in the National League and third-worst in baseball. And that's after a quartet of pitchers combined to toss five scoreless innings during Sunday's blowout win.

The problems run across the board, from struggling late-inning options Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley and Joe Blanton to injured young guns Koda Glover and Sammy Solís.

The lone bright spots at the moment are journeymen Matt Albers (9 1/3 scoreless innings since his promotion from Triple-A Syracuse) and Oliver Pérez (six consecutive scoreless outings after sitting idle for 11 days).

The Nationals are getting away with it because they're scoring so many runs and their rotation has been exceptional. But they also know things can't continue at this rate without the relief corps costing them important games.

"Well, the bullpen has been disappointing," general manager Mike Rizzo conceded Sunday morning. "They've got great stuff, and they need to pitch better. They have the ability to do so. They've got the track record that they have done it. And they need to do it. It's a performance business, and it's all about in between the lines, and they need to pitch better. And I think they will. I trust them, I believe in them and I'll continue to believe in them, because they've done it before. And when you evaluate the bullpen, their stuff is great, and they need to pitch better."

(In case you missed his subtle message, Rizzo believe Nationals relievers need to pitch better.)

It's not as simple as that, of course. Just when it appeared the unit had settled into a positive groove at last, with Kelley and Glover taking over as closers and Treinen moving back into a fireman role in earlier innings, things collapsed again over the last week.

It didn't help when Glover had to be placed on the 10-day disabled list with a left hip impingement, nor when Solís continued to experience elbow discomfort and wasn't able to return from the disabled list when eligible.

The bullpen's biggest bugaboo, though, remains an inability to keep the ball in the park. Nationals relievers have surrendered 15 homers in 72 2/3 innings. That's a staggering rate increase from 0.86 homers allowed per nine innings last season to 1.86 per nine innings this season.

Does the organization have a theory on how to fix that particular problem?

"Yes, they need to pitch better," Rizzo said in an all-too-familiar answer before adding more. "We do have points to address, several of the concerns we have in the bullpen, and suffice to say we're in the process of doing that. But the bottom line is, they're big leaguers. They've got to pitch to their capabilities. And if they do that, we really like our bullpen. And I still trust them and feel comfortable when they come in, because it's only a matter of time before they're going to get it together and pitch great. They've done it in the past, and they're going to continue to do it. They just need to find a comfort zone and to do it."

For now, the Nationals appear content to stick with what they've got, hoping the cream rises to the top and a core group of three or four relievers takes over and assumes the key roles. Besides, it's too early in the baseball calendar to start pursuing trades.

But, as we've seen more than once in the past, Rizzo won't hesitate to pull the trigger on a significant deal come the summer if he believes his relief corps still isn't up to code. This is the GM, after all, who traded for Jonathan Papelbon in July 2015 and then Mark Melancon in July 2016.

Already, outsiders are compiling lists of potential trade targets for the summer, with Royals closer Kelvin Herrera jumping to the top of those lists.

As has been the case in the past, though, Rizzo views those types of moves as fallback options necessary only if the in-house options fail to deliver.

"We never turn our back on a deal that we think is good," he said." But we trust the people we have. We trust the depth we have. We like the bullpen we have, and we're very satisfied with it. And we think that it's a championship-caliber bullpen."

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