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Struggling left-hander Sean Burnett's ERA is up to 5.96.
Impressively, they've managed to accomplish Parts 1 and 2 with a level of consistency few could have predicted entering the season. Part 3? Well, we've dissected the Nats' offensive woes ad nauseum. Nothing really new to say there. This lineup is what it is. Besides, as long as they continue to take care of Parts 1 and 2, they'll stay competitive and win their share of games.
Except Part 1 doesn't appear to be a certainty anymore, especially when it comes to a Nationals' bullpen that has hit a bit of a rough patch in the last two weeks.
Mind you, the Nationals have more significant woes than their bullpen. Their biggest problem is and will continue to be their lack of offense. But in order to win games with the formula they've created for themselves, they can't afford any prolonged slip-ups in any other departments. And right now, the bullpen is slipping up.
When Livan Hernandez departed last night's game in San Diego with two on and one out in the sixth, the Nats trailed 4-2. Livo was by no means in top form, but the game was still within reach for his team. Sean Burnett and Cole Kimball, though, proceeded to issue back-to-back walks (Kimball's with the bases loaded) and then a sacrifice fly. Just like that, two inherited runners scored and a close ballgame was no longer reasonably within reach.
And last night's performance was merely the latest in a string of shaky bullpen outings. Over the last 17 games, Nationals relievers have posted a 4.38 ERA, up nearly a run and a half from their mark over the season's first 46 games.
ERA, of course, isn't always the best indicator of relief pitching, so let's also look at the rate in which inherited runners have been scoring. Over the last seven games, the Nationals have allowed 10 of 22 inherited runners to score, a 45.5 percent rate that is considerably higher than the 34.2 percent rate they posted before this stretch.
The struggles aren't limited to one guy, but rather stretch across most of the bullpen. Tyler Clippard continues to be the team's most-effective reliever, and Todd Coffey has been right behind him (though usually in situations of far less significance). Drew Storen, though, has given up eight runs in his last 7 2/3 innings, has seen his ERA jump from 0.38 to 2.59 and has twice blown ninth-inning leads and been charged with a loss in another game.
Then there's Burnett, the once-reliable lefty who just hasn't been able to get on track at all this year. Burnett, whose ERA has ballooned to a career-high 5.96, is giving up more hits (9.1 per nine innings) while striking out fewer batters (4.8 per nine innings) than he has in four seasons since becoming a reliever. He's insisted all along his arm feels fine. He's just not executing his pitches, a disturbing thought.
And compounding the Nationals' bullpen woes are two hard-throwing, young right-handers who frequently have no idea where the ball's going to land. Henry Rodriguez and Cole Kimball have been getting a lot of work lately, and that hasn't necessarily been a good thing.
Rodriguez has allowed only 12 hits in 17 innings while striking out 21 batters in that span, frequently with a fastball that reaches triple digits. So what's the problem? He's also issued a staggering 14 walks in those 17 innings, not to mention five wild pitches.
Kimball's numbers are eerily comparable to Rodriguez: Only eight hits allowed in 14 innings, with 11 strikeouts but also 11 walks and two wild pitches.
When they put the ball in the strike zone, these guys are unhittable. But they don't put the ball in the strike zone nearly enough to be effective.
The Nationals' bullpen has been a strength nearly every season the franchise has been in town. And it will probably wind up still being a strength this season, because there's too much talent there for the entire unit to blow up.
But when you struggle to score three runs per night, every little slip-up by every other facet of your game is going to get magnified. And right now, the Nats' bullpen is performing just poorly enough to be magnified.