The Nationals, believe it or not, entered the day with the majors’ lowest bullpen ERA (2.85), the fourth-lowest WHIP and sixth-lowest batting average against. Yet there is no unit on the roster that appears more in need of help as the trade deadline approaches than this team’s relief corps.
It’s an odd dichotomy between stats and the eye test, but games like today’s 10-6 loss to the Padres only underscore the challenge facing general manager Mike Rizzo before the Aug. 1 deadline hits in eight days.
The Nationals were in prime position to win this game, in spite of the fact that they got only 3 1/3 innings out of starter Lucas Giolito. But after using four relievers just to get his team through the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings, manager Dusty Baker was down to precious few options to close this one out.
Left-hander Felipe Rivero was unavailable, for reasons unspecified by Baker, so instead it was Shawn Kelley facing the left-handed-hitting Alex Dickerson and Ryan Schimpf in the top of the eighth. Each batter homered, turning a 6-4 lead into a 6-6 deadlock.
“Just two pitches that weren’t up enough,” Kelley said. “Both balls were on the corners in the right direction, I just wanted them a few balls higher. I just didn’t get them there. ... They were not bad pitches, but to those two guys, they like the ball in those spots.”
Kelley, who has been perhaps the Nationals’ most consistently effective reliever this season, has nonetheless had a penchant for surrendering big hits to left-handed batters. They have now piled up 10 extra-base hits (including four homers) in just 49 at-bats against the veteran righty.
That explains in part why Baker would have preferred a lefty on the mound to open the eighth. But he burned up Oliver Perez in the seventh. And with Sammy Solis two days away from being activated off the disabled list and Rivero unavailable, there were no more southpaws at his disposal.
“We didn’t have Rivero today,” Baker said. “We had to use Perez earlier to get a bunch of lefties, and then if we had Rivero we’d have used him against Dickerson and Schimpf. And then those balls (from Kelley) were in the heart of the plate, which made it tough.”
Despite all that, the Nationals still were in position to win late. But after failing to convert a first-and-third, one-out potential rally in the bottom of the eighth, closer Jonathan Papelbon entered to pitch the top of the ninth.
Again, this was not Baker’s preferred scenario - Papelbon would be pitching for the third straight day - but he felt he needed to use his closer for the ninth and then save long man Yusmeiro Petit (the only other available arm in his bullpen) possible extra innings.
Papelbon, who had been quite effective since returning from a brief stint on the disabled list earlier this month, only wound up pouring more gas on the fire. He issued a one-out walk to Wil Myers, let him take second on a wild pitch and then served up an RBI single to Yangervis Solarte.
Worse, he couldn’t put out the fire after that. Singles by Dickerson and Schimpf prolonged the inning and set the stage for Alexei Ramirez to break the game open with a three-run double into the left field corner.
“It boiled down to location,” Papelbon said. “Coming in there in a situation where we’ve gotta preserve everything we can, every pitch matters in that situation. One pitch away from getting out of that. It boiled down to missed location to Solarte. He was able to just get enough barrel on the ball to have that one drop right in front of (Michael A.) Taylor. Once that happened, the same thing happened with the next few hitters.”
Asked specifically about pitching on the third straight day, something he hadn’t previously done this season, Papelbon responded: “Your question is, ‘Was I tired?’ No, I was not tired.”
“I don’t like to make excuses, but I don’t like to use my closer three days in a row,” Baker added. “And this was three days in a row for Pap. But we didn’t have a choice. The ball wasn’t coming out today the way it had been since he came back from the injury. They hit a couple balls hard on the ground. That was kind of the ballgame.”
Add it to the list of pitching maneuvers that did not go as planned in a game that certainly didn’t end as the Nationals hoped.
Said Baker: “It didn’t work out at all.”
Note: Well after the game ended and reporters had departed the clubhouse, the Nationals announced that both Giolito and Taylor were optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. Those moves open up spots for first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and left-hander Solis to come off the DL in time for Tuesday night’s interleague series opener in Cleveland.