CHICAGO -- Sitting inside his cramped office at Wrigley Field late Monday afternoon, Jim Riggleman talked about the need for some of his relief pitchers not named Matt Capps or Tyler Clippard to start coming through in key situations.
"Tonight would be a great night for that to happen," the Nationals manager said.
Some five hours later, as Brian Bruney was trudging off the mound after issuing a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk in the 10th inning of a 4-3 loss to the Cubs, Riggleman could only sigh and wonder what might have been.
Three weeks into this already-surprising season, the Nationals have gotten plenty of top-notch performances. Livan Hernandez and Ivan Rodriguez have been fantastic. Josh Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman (when he plays) have been solid. Capps and Clippard have been virtually unhittable.
But if the Nats are serious about sustaining their early season momentum and actually keeping themselves on the fringe of contention, they're going to have to get contributions from a lot more players. And that begins in a bullpen that boasts far too few sure things at the moment.
Someone else has got to step up and share the load with Capps and Clippard. Sean Burnett took a step in the right direction tonight in retiring both batters he faced. Tyler Walker also did his part, retiring four of five batters in a tie game.
But Bruney is the guy who's supposed to be counted upon in these situations. The Nationals acquired the 28-year-old right-hander from the Yankees in December and then paid him $1.5 million to be their primary setup man. So what have they received so far for their investment? 10 shaky relief appearances that have resulted in six earned runs and 19 baserunners in 9 2/3 innings. An astounding 12 of those batters have reached base via walk.
Bruney added three more free passes to the ledger tonight, all of them on four straight pitches, the final one an embarrassing bases-loaded walk to Aramis Ramirez to end the game.
"I was the only one out there throwing the baseball when that run scored, and I walked him in. I put this one on me," the pitcher said. "Unfortunately, this is not a good feeling to have. In a locker room full of guys who are busting their [butts], I go out there and walk a guy to win the game. I'm obviously not happy with myself."
In fairness to Bruney, this one wasn't entirely his fault. He allowed two weak singles in the 10th: a slow grounder through the right side hole and a blooper behind second base. They weren't necessarily plays Cristian Guzman should have made, but they were plays a good second baseman has a chance to make.
Blame for loss No. 10 of 20 also goes to John Lannan, who himself issued three straight walks in the second, including a four-pitch free pass to opposing pitcher Carlos Silva with the bases loaded.
"It was crappy," Lannan said. "I fell apart in the second, and that can't happen."
It also didn't help that Nyjer Morgan misjudged a line drive hit over his head earlier in that second inning, leading to another run, or that the Nationals' lineup went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
But those misdeeds would have been overshadowed had Bruney simply thrown the ball over the plate in the 10th inning and given his teammates a chance to win the game.
How much longer can Riggleman stick with the struggling right-hander in tight situations? Probably not much more. He's already displayed far more trust in Clippard to get through both the seventh and eighth innings in setting up Capps, and that will likely continue. He may start handing the ball more frequently to Walker or even Miguel Batista in setup situations, though neither of those seems like a strong alternative.
The answer, actually, may currently be sleeping in a hotel room in Reading, Pa.
Drew Storen continues to dominate the minor leagues. He's allowed only one run in 7 1/3 innings for Class AA Harrisburg, a continuation of his dominance from last season. In 34 games now as a professional pitcher, Storen owns a 1.83 ERA, is allowing less than five hits per nine innings and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 57-to-9. Yes, 57 strikeouts to nine walks in 44 1/3 minor-league innings.
You think Storen's going to walk in the winning run with the bases loaded in the 10th?
Problem is, the Nationals have been planning to wait to promote the first-round draft pick until late-May or early-June, thus delaying his arbitration and free-agent clocks, much as they're doing with Stephen Strasburg.
But can this team afford to wait around for bullpen help? Can it continue to rely on guys like Bruney to pitch in key situations in hostile environments?
If the Nationals are serious about turning this surprisingly competitive start into something more, they may have to rethink their long-term plan in the interest of short-term success.