With closer struggling, Baker pleads for offense (Nats win 4-1)

CLEVELAND - Jonathan Papelbon has pitched four of the last five days, and has given up six total runs in two most recent outings, leaving Dusty Baker facing quite a conundrum: Who does he turn to if he needs a closer in this afternoon’s series finale against the Indians?

The Nationals manager couldn’t offer up a definitive answer this morning.

“Sometimes as a closer you’ve got to go four or five days in a row sometimes, which I don’t like to do,” Baker said. “A closer either pitches a lot or doesn’t pitch hardly at all. They’re kind of like home runs: They come in streaks. So we can say whatever we want to say and come up with an alibi, or whatever we want to come up with, but he’s not making any alibis. He’s a man like that. So at this point, I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do.”

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Papelbon pitched a clean inning Friday night against the Padres, his first appearance during this current stretch. He gave up a leadoff double Saturday night but emerged unscathed in a tie game and wound up getting credited with the win. Pitching again in a tie game Sunday afternoon, he gave up four runs on four hits, a walk and a wild pitch, taking the loss. And on Tuesday night at Progressive Field, he turned a 6-4 lead in the bottom of the ninth into a 7-6 loss via a leadoff walk, an RBI double, a bunt single, an intentional walk and an error on Ryan Zimmerman.

That heavy workload, combined with his struggles, would seem to make Papelbon unavailable for today’s game. Baker didn’t go so far as to say that, but the veteran manager did offer up a theory for how his team might create a situation in which the closer’s services would not be necessary.

“I suggest - I strongly suggest - we haven’t pounded on anybody in a long time,” Baker said. “This is the offense’s time to step up, because the pitching has been carrying us most of the year, except for a couple guys. So I think it’s time for us to score seven, eight runs and put the game out of reach. ...

“There comes a time when your pitching’s carrying you. There’s a time where your bullpen’s carrying you. There’s a time when your offense is carrying you. I said this two, three months ago. There’s a time when everybody’s got their stuff together. So, this is hot-weather time. It’s time for the offense to stand up.”

Update: Baker has seen his lineup deliver some offense early today, though it has been a struggle to plate the two runs they got. After wasting Trea Turner’s leadoff double in the top of the first, the Nats nearly wasted back-to-back walks by Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon to lead off the top of the second. It required a 12-pitch walk by Ben Revere (arguably his best at-bat of the season) to load the bases with two outs, and then Turner’s two-run single to left to finally break through. Fortunately for the Nationals, Stephen Strasburg has been excellent so far, tossing four scoreless innings while allowing just two hits and a walk. So the Nats lead 2-0 after four.

Update II: Make it 3-0 thanks to a home run from (you’ll never guess who) Daniel Murphy. That’s Murphy’s 20th of the season. And we’re still only in Game No. 101. He’s hitting .352 and also has 75 RBIs. Which is not too shabby. Also not too shabby: Strasburg, who has tossed six scoreless innings, scattering three hits and two walks. His pitch count, though, is 96, so he’s probably only good for one more inning, if that.

Update III: It’s 4-0 Nats now thanks to another big hit from Turner, whose two-out RBI double in the seventh left him 3-for-4 on the afternoon, with two doubles and three RBIs. Strasburg finished his afternoon strong, with a pair of strikeouts, and is done after seven scoreless innings on 110 pitches. Sammy Solis will get the eighth in his first appearance since returning from a knee injury.

Update IV: That’ll do it. Nats win 4-1, but it didn’t come without some drama. Solis and Matt Belisle combined to pitch the eighth, but Felipe Rivero let three of the four batters he faced in the ninth reach, one of them scoring. Blake Treinen wound up recording the final two outs in what became a save situation. Strasburg improves to 14-1. And the Nats salvage a two-game split of this interleague series. They now head west for a big, four-game weekend set against the Giants.

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