Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ryan Zimmerman's sixth-inning homer wasn't enough to carry the Nats tonight.
"You can't have Clip every day," the Nats pitching coach said. "You want somebody to go out there and just to grab it and say: 'I'm going to pitch that inning. Seventh-eighth inning, you can rely on me.'"
Alas, that guy has yet to identify himself, and it's becoming a bigger and bigger problem for a Nationals club that sorely needed someone like that tonight in a 4-2 loss to the Marlins.
What had been a tight pitchers' duel between Craig Stammen and Chris Volstad turned in the eighth inning, when Brian Bruney allowed two runs to score on two singles, two walks and his own error trying to field a sacrifice bunt.
Thus ended the latest unsightly outing for Bruney, who entered the season as the Nationals' top setup man but at this point might not be trusted for anything other than mop-up duty.
Bruney's updated season numbers: 1-2 with a 6.00 ERA, 17 hits and 18 walks in 15 innings. Yes, that's 1.2 walks per inning, 2.33 baserunners per inning.
"I'm busting my ass out there," the right-hander said. "I'm trying as hard as I can. I feel like these guys in there know how hard I work. They know how hard I'm trying. I think that's all you can ask for. The results, it's kind of out of my control. Obviously I have some work I need to do. I understand that. I need to quit walking people."
Whatever Bruney's issues are -- mechanical or mental -- the Nationals can't afford to wait for him to figure it out. They're playing good baseball, and more importantly, playing close baseball almost every single night. A strong (and deep) bullpen is an absolute must right now.
Capps (1.10 ERA, 11 saves in 11 tries) and Clippard (4-0, 0.42 ERA) have been phenomenal; the Nats couldn't ask for any more out of either. But Capps is on pace to appear in 84 games this season and Clippard is on pace to throw 119 innings out of the bullpen. As manager Jim Riggleman put it yesterday, Clippard "won't be able to comb his hair" by season's end if this keeps up.
So Clippard was unavailable tonight, even though the situation (tie game, eighth inning) desperately called for him.
"It's been a little bit of a problem for us so far," Riggleman said. "Many times, Clippard's bailed us out. But we can't keep asking him to go in there as early as the seventh."
So what are Riggleman's other options? Sean Burnett has begun to throw the ball better, and the Nationals are considering using the left-hander against batters from both sides of the plate. But that leaves the club without any other lefties in the bullpen. Miguel Batista is needed as a long man. Tyler Walker has been too erratic.
Salvation currently sits 373 miles to the north of Washington, straight up Interstate-81. His name is Drew Storen, and he is exactly what the Nationals need.
Storen's total minor-league numbers since getting drafted last summer: 2-1, 1.80 ERA, 15 saves in 15 tries, 62 strikeouts and nine walks in 50 innings.
Yes, he's only made three appearances at Class AAA Syracuse (including a scoreless ninth tonight to preserve Stephen Strasburg's victory) but he's already established a record of dominance at every stage of minor-league baseball.
Don't count on Storen's final promotion quite yet, though.
"He's had just minimal time so far, a couple of innings here and there, at Triple-A," Riggleman said. "I think we're a little ways away from that. I hope he can handle it when he gets here. But I'd like for somebody to pitch well enough here that we don't even need to make that move."
There's only one legitimate reason Storen isn't in the majors yet: Money. By holding him down for another three weeks or so, the Nationals can prevent him from attaining "Super 2" status and reaching arbitration after the 2011 season. It's a valid reason to wait to make the move, and one just about every other franchise in baseball would use.
But here's the problem: The Nationals, for all their talk about building for the future, may actually have a window of opportunity right now. No one expected this, but they're competitive in 2010 and showing few signs of letting up. This is far from a flawless team, but there appears to be enough here to at least hover around the fringes of a pennant race and perhaps make the leap into true contenders once Strasburg arrives next month.
The Nats are getting pretty good starting pitching. They're getting just enough offense. They're playing solid defense. And they've got two fantastic relievers. The biggest hole on the roster right now is another setup man. Just one more reliable reliever would make a huge difference.
Yet the young man who most could help this team, right now and down the road, is stuck at Class AAA, biding his time for a few more weeks until the financial rules of baseball make his promotion viable.
Until then, well, the Nationals will just have to hope for the best every time the bullpen door swings open and someone not named Clippard or Capps comes trotting out.