With Miller’s surprising emergence, Nats bullpen a strength again

NEW YORK - Juan Soto stole the show Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. But let’s not ignore the job the Nationals bullpen did to ensure Soto’s two homers made the difference in a 5-4 victory instead of being mere footnotes in another frustrating loss.

madson-deals-gray-sidebar.jpgAfter starter Erick Fedde departed, having allowed four runs in five innings, the quartet of Justin Miller, Sammy Solís, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle combined to pitch four scoreless frames, the final three while protecting a one-run lead.

And this wasn’t some flash-in-the-pan performance. The Nationals bullpen has slowly but surely turned into a decided strength for this club over the last month.

In 20 games dating back to May 21, Nats relievers own a 1.62 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, with 64 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 66 2/3 total innings. Throw out the six runs they allowed Friday night after Stephen Strasburg departed with a shoulder injury and the group’s ERA drops to a microscopic 0.91.

And contributions are coming from nearly everyone. Of the 12 relievers who have pitched during this stretch, nine boast ERAs under 2.00.

The fact Doolittle has allowed only four of the 34 batters he’s faced to reach base is no surprise. The fact Miller has allowed only two of the 34 batters he’s faced to reach is a downright shock.

Miller, the out-of-nowhere right-hander who celebrated his 31st birthday Wednesday, has now struck out 21-of-34 batters in the majors this season. And in 24 1/3 total innings between Washington and Triple-A Syracuse, he has allowed a grand total of five hits and three walks, striking out 44 batters. Oh, and he hasn’t surrendered a run yet.

“Honestly, I don’t know how we got him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But I’m glad he’s here. He’s doing really well. And he fits our needs.”

For the record, the Nationals signed Miller to a minor league contract in January, hoping the 4.99 ERA he posted in 82 games with the Tigers and Rockies from 2014-16 wasn’t a true reflection of his ability. They have been proven right, thanks in part to the altered delivery Miller has developed in which he sets up with an exaggeratedly closed stance that allows him to throw across his body and better hide the ball from batters.

So far, hitters haven’t been able to do anything against Miller, leaving him confident he doesn’t need to start making any more adjustments.

“I’m not going to try to change anything, if that’s what you’re asking,” Miller said. “I’m just going to keep doing the same routine every single day. I mean, I’m doing well right now, so I’m just going to try to keep that up.”

Miller has found himself pitching in some significant moments already, so often that he has four wins out of the bullpen.

“It’s pretty nice,” he said. “I guess I’m in the weeds. I keep snaking wins. It’s kind of tough. It’s lucky trying to get wins out of the bullpen. I guess I’m just in the right spot at the right time.”

Miller has earned the right to pitch in big spots, and he has become invaluable to the club with Brandon Kintzler on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his forearm. Miller has become the de facto seventh-inning reliever now, though as he did Wednesday he has shown he can pitch multiple innings as well.

“I got to give credit to the scouts and whoever brought him over here,” setup man Ryan Madson said. “I don’t know who. Obviously (Mike) Rizzo was a part of it, and everybody else who suggested he come over and pitch. Because he’s gotten a lot of big outs, and he’s just having fun in the moment.

“I don’t think he’s thinking much about it and just throwing good stuff up there. And good stuff can happen. It’s fun to watch. It reminds everybody that these waves are there for everybody, and he’s on a good one. So we’re all enjoying it with him, and hopefully it lasts the rest of the season.”

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