Bullpen rebound helps rest of team focus on task at hand

The Nationals bullpen took their lumps for most of the first two months of the season. But recently they have been able to avoid big innings and hold leads.

Since May 31, Nats relievers have pitched to a 2.04 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 10 walks. Only two out of 14 inherited runners have scored in that span (14.3 percent).

“They’ve been really, really good,” said Nationals manager Davey Martinez. “I think since [May 31] they’ve been tops in the league. It’s kind of nice.”

Rainey-Pitch-Blue-sidebar.jpgFriday night, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey and Sean Doolittle combined to pitch two innings, allowing only one run.

Suero allowed a run on two hits with a walk and one strikeout in recording two outs. With two away, Adam Jones singled and Eduardo Escobar bounced a double to the top of right field fence to score a run. Rainey came in to record the final out of the inning, but got hit on his calf by Kevin Cron’s grounder.

“I think with him, it’s just pitch location,” Martinez said of Suero. “He had two strikes on [Jones] today and I know he was trying to get the ball down out of the zone and he kept the ball up, so he had a base hit. Just got to keep working. He’s pitching better. With two strikes, he’s got to put them away.”

Martinez spoke this week about simplifying roles in the ‘pen and maybe trying to get to a point where the Nats don’t expose each pitcher for too long. Catcher Kurt Suzuki said he sees a bullpen that is no longer overwhelmed.

“I think just stop trying to do too much,” Suzuki said. “They’re obviously a talented bunch. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t talented. I think it’s now just a matter of going out there and trying to execute pitches.

“Everybody talks about the ERA, and every outing they’re trying to make it go down six points where all you can do is get outs. Look at the ERA at the end of the year, get outs now, see what happens when we get the lead, keep us in the ball game. They’re coming in doing the job, which is great.”

Martinez sees a bunch that has gone after hitters instead of nibbling and hoping for strikes or groundballs.

“They’re attacking the strike zone, making pitches, them being more aggressive,” Martinez said. “I don’t see them nit-picking the way I did before. They’re going after guys. They have the stuff to do it. I love they come in, they’re engaged, they’re working really hard.”

Martinez voiced concern postgame about Rainey’s status for Saturday. The Nats need to make sure he is OK because Rainey has been a difference-maker in the ‘pen: 1-1 with a 1.64 ERA.

“He’s been a great arm, obviously great edition,” Suzuki said. “He can come in the middle innings, he can come in late in the game, he can come in with the lead, tie score, he’s pretty much kind of a hybrid. Kind of does what he is told. Doesn’t say much, comes out there, puts up zeroes, and it’s great.”

And another important consequence of a bullpen that does its job is better results for starters like Max Scherzer. The right-hander said that when the bullpen holds leads the rest of the team can focus on building on their advantage.

“It just provides consistency and allow us to get on runs,” Scherzer said. “Those guys, we knew how talented they were, we know that they can go out and execute some pitches and they have big-time stuff too. So anytime we can always give the ball to Doo with a lead, (we are) always are gonna love that going forward. So I think that’s just the mentality that everybody has: How do we get that ball to Doo with a three-run lead or better?”

That is a good question to have to ponder when the club is scoring more than six runs a game.

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