Is the bullpen starting to show cracks?

The Nationals believed they were going to enter the season with as deep a bullpen as they’ve had in some time. With new closer Brad Hand joining experienced late-inning right-handers Daniel Hudson and Will Harris, plus up-and-comers Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan, the Nats were reasonably confident they had an ample supply of arms to win games late.

Fifty-six games into a 162-game season, they were somewhat right about that. The bullpen has been perhaps the least of the Nationals’ concerns so far this year, certainly through all of April and much of May as the lineup struggled to score runs and the rotation struggled to consistently pitch deep in games.

But cracks are starting to show, and some of those relievers the club was counting on to deliver are enjoying less consistent success. And Sunday’s ugly loss in Philadelphia might have been the most striking example.

Needing his bullpen to pitch the entire game, manager Davey Martinez watched that group get roughed up for 12 runs (eight earned) in six innings. A unit that entered the day with a collective 3.95 ERA departed it with a 4.21 ERA, which now ranks in the bottom half of the majors.

Rainey-Delivers-Gray-Sidebar.jpgAnd the culprits were familiar ones, most notably Rainey, who took over in the bottom of the sixth after his teammates had scored three runs to trim their deficit to 9-6 and give some sense of hope of a possible comeback. Three batters later, the deficit was 12-6 after Rainey plunked Nick Maton in the foot with an 0-2 slider, gave up a double off the top of the right field wall to Odúbel Herrera and gave up a three-run homer to J.T. Realmuto on a 98 mph fastball.

By the time the inning ended, Rainey was the not-so-proud owner of a 10.57 ERA and 2.087 WHIP, each representing the third-worst mark among all major league relievers with at least 20 appearances this season.

“We’ve got to get him settled down a little bit and try not to do too much,” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “When I first saw him, when we first got him, he was trying to throw every ball 105 mph. We really had to get him to settle back down, and honestly just go out there and tell him you’ve got to go out there at 75 percent. Once your adrenaline gets going, you’re going to be at 100 percent and the ball’s going to come out. He just needs to relax.”

Rainey, who did become a key part of the Nationals’ championship bullpen in 2019 and was their best reliever for most of the shortened 2020 season, certainly has the ability to be successful. But how much longer can Martinez keep sending him to the mound in situations of consequence, hoping for the best but fearing the worst?

“We want him to be a guy for us,” the manager said. “And he’s got the stuff to do that.”

The other portion on Sunday’s bullpen meltdown came in the bottom of the fourth, which began with the Nationals leading 3-0 and somehow ended with them trailing 7-3 despite the fact the Phillies managed only three hits (all singles) and hit only one ball harder than 90 mph off the bat (and that turned into a groundout).

There was bad luck involved, to be sure, but there was also really poor command from Sam Clay (four-pitch walk of Realmuto) and Finnegan (back-to-back walks with the bases loaded).

“I didn’t help myself with the walks there,” said Finnegan, whose ERA is up to 4.15, his WHIP up to 1.667 in large part due to 15 walks in 24 innings. “I think I was happy with some of my stuff. I was getting soft contact and just the bounces didn’t go my way that inning. But the walks are inexcusable. I got to 3-2 counts, got two strikes, and just couldn’t get that third strike.”

On the positive side, Suero (who pitched a perfect third inning) has been quite good this season, with a 2.60 ERA, 0.923 WHIP and sterling 18-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Austin Voth, who started the game by retiring all six batters he faced before suffering a broken nose when he was struck by a high-and-tight pitch, also has been a revelation in his conversion to the bullpen. And Kyle McGowin and Paolo Espino, who weren’t expected to be part of the mix back in March, both sport ERAs in the 2.00s and WHIPs under 1.00, albeit in low-leverage roles.

Hudson (2.38 ERA, 0.882 WHIP) and Hand (3.48 ERA, 1.258 WHIP) have been good to excellent most of the time, but each has endured through a ragged stretch, perhaps in part due to their heavy workloads.

And Harris, who was supposed to form a formidable late-inning trio with Hudson and Hand, had surgery Friday for thoracic outlet syndrome, a major procedure that will likely sideline the 36-year-old for the rest of the season.

Put it all together, and the Nationals bullpen still looks strong at times but now looks fragile and susceptible to meltdowns at any moment.

It’s hardly the biggest reason for the team’s 24-32 record. But if the Nats want to turn that record around, and soon, they’re going to have to get much more consistently effective work from their relief corps.

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