Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The 'pen is mightier at last

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Tyler Walker came through with two big strikeouts in the Nats' 3-2 win.
NEW YORK -- If this game, this white-knuckle 3-2 victory over the Mets at windswept Citi Field, didn't prove that Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps are the Nationals' most valuable players ... well, you haven't been paying attention.

And if this game didn't also prove that if the Nats are going to have any chance of maintaining a winning record over the long haul ... well, you don't understand the importance of a deep bullpen.

"We like to play, too," Brian Bruney said. "It can't just be the 'Clip and Capps Show' every night."

No, but until Bruney and Co. establish they can enter a tight situation and not ramp up Jim Riggleman's blood pressure, the manager has no choice but to ride Clippard and Capps until their arms fall off.

Perhaps, then, tonight's nip-and-tuck win, with Clippard and Capps both sidelined due to overuse, was the first step toward a more-balanced bullpen. Those two MVPs may still be Riggleman's go-to guys. But perhaps he'll actually consider handing the ball to Bruney or Tyler Walker or Miguel Batista in a competitive situation down the road.

Riggleman has no choice. He can't in good conscience burn out his two best relievers in mid-May. Not if this team has any visions of lingering around a pennant race through the summer. The Nats are going to need Clippard and Capps come July and August and September. To ensure they're still available then, they've got to spread the ball around more now.

"We've just got to back off those guys now and again, and some other guys have to do it," Riggleman said. "That's what it's got to be. Everybody's got to contribute."

So, as difficult as it was, the manager sat Clippard and Capps down tonight. Clippard had thrown 5 2/3 innings over the last six games. Capps had pitched in four of those six games and had warmed up in the bullpen the other two times.

The decision was made pregame. The Nationals would need to get outs from the other five members of their bullpen.

Life would have been easier for everyone had they simply opened up a more substantial lead for a change. Take a 5-run lead into the seventh for once. But if you've been following this team since Opening Day, you know that's not the M.O. around NatsTown. They've played 32 games now. Seventeen have been decided by two runs or less, including the last six.

So, that pattern's not about to change. On the bright side, the Nationals are 12-5 in those games decided by two runs or less. They're 8-3 in one-run games.

"Yeah, we'd like to win every game by 10 runs," Ryan Zimmerman said. "But the good teams, I guess, figure out ways to win [close ones] instead of lose them. The last two years, we've been the team that figures out ways to lose them. This year, we've figured out ways to win them so far."

So it was no surprise when the Nats took a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning tonight, buoyed by back-to-back homers from Adam Kennedy and Zimmerman and another strong performance by Luis Atilano. But the rookie needed 102 pitches to make it through 5 1/3 innings, so Riggleman had to turn to his bullpen to record 11 outs.

It took every method of managerial finagling to pull it off -- double switches, timely match-ups -- but five different relievers were able to notch those final 11 outs. And just about every one of them came up big when called upon.

Doug Slaten, making his Nats debut, entered with two on and one out in the sixth. It took only one pitch to coerce a double-play soft liner off the bat of Ike Davis. Just like you drew it up, right, Doug?

"Oh yeah, that's my approach," Slaten said, unable to keep a straight face. "No, that's a great finish for that inning. I just wanted to get ahead, and he swung at it."

Next up was Walker, the consummate mop-up man. Did you realize that until tonight, the Nationals were 0-9 in games Walked pitched? He hadn't even stood on the mound for one nanosecond with his team holding a lead.

"As a reliever, as a competitor, you strive to be in those situations," he said.

With two huge strikeouts, both on full-count sliders, Walker perhaps convinced his manager to entrust him in similar situations down the road.

"We're not offended by it at all," Walker said of Riggleman's previous refusal to use anyone other than Clippard or Capps in tight situations. "We haven't pitched well enough to merit that. But it was time for us to step up and get some big outs, especially late in the game with the lead."

The one guy who had been given a few opportunities in the late innings was Bruney, who more often than not had failed miserably. So imagine the right-hander's relief tonight to come into a tight spot in the eighth inning and get two quick outs to preserve the lead.

"We were all thrown a challenge today," he said. "We got through it and did a good job."

Before the game, Riggleman had decided Batista would be his closer if the situation called for it. The veteran right-hander has plenty of experience in the ninth inning and now owns 40 career saves. But he didn't find out tonight he'd be the man until the eighth inning rolled around and bullpen coach Jim Lett informed him.

Batista wasn't perfect. Perhaps fazed for a moment by the situation, he allowed a solo homer to Angel Pagan that cut the lead to 3-2 and then put the tying run on with a two-out single by Alex Cora.

"You never get used to that feeling," he said. "It was kind of interesting. You get a different rush when you go out there with a game on the line."

But Batista ultimately got the job done. He struck out Jason Bay, the 11th strikeout by Nationals pitchers tonight, and earned his first save of the year.

And so the Nats proved they can win a game without "Clip 'n' Save." It wasn't always pretty. And they certainly will prefer to have their top two relievers available next time they take a two-run lead into the seventh.

But for the first time all season, the Nationals emerged from a ballgame feeling confident about the rest of a relief corps that to date had oozed anything but confidence.


hb said...

Why no mention of the word "Storen?"

Positively Half St. said...

Today is a day when we don't have to mention Storen, for once. The truth is that we would all be satisfied for Strasburg to start 3-0 like Atilano, as well. We just hope that Storen and Strasburg are more dominant than Batista and Atilano were last night.

Speaking of Atilano, I would say that although he probably will go down to Syracuse when Strasburg is called up, we already have gotten good value back in trade for Daryle Ward 3 years ago. It makes me wonder again what we might have received in minor league talent if Jim Bowden had traded Dmitri Young during that one August when he still had trade value.

yankish2 said...

Nothing more than a bag of balls for Dmitri Young so don't wonder too long. No one in baseball, other than Bowden, would have given him a 2 year contract.

Tegwar said...

The bullpen preserves the win for Atilano's birthday!

Nats fan in NJ said...

Not just Storen, but isn't English doing pretty well down in the Minors, too?

1 down, 8 more to go on this road trip. How can we not be thrilled with the Nats position? Plus, this is a fun team to root for.

Anonymous said...

When the cavalry (Strasburg, Storen, Wang, Detweiler, Zimmermann) comes up, Atilano and Stammen and Chico might convert into good long relievers. The Nats have the arms; too many of them are called "starters."

Andrew said...

I think this team needs to blowout some of their opponents which is the best strategy to rest the backside of the bullpen.

Anonymous said...

I see the Nats released Mike Daniels from their Harrisburg roster. I thought this guy had some talent but was shoved aside in the almighty push to get Maxwell to the bigs. Did you ever see this guy play and if you did....what did you think. I personally think he got the shaft with the Nats

natsfan1a said...

Good to see some other guys step up from the 'pen. I'm glad they decided to give Clippard and Capps a break. I'd forgotten about Atilano's birthday. Nice gift for him, although the way he was going in the first, I'd not have suspected that would be the result. Ahem.

Did anybody have an Elvis wig sighting? I watched a good deal of the postgame, but turned it off before the end. I'd have given it to Pudge, myself.

On an unrelated note, was clicking around during the pregame show, and landed on the lineups for the Yankees/Tigers game on ESPN. Number 3 in the Yankees lineup was listed as Johnson, playing RF. Aflac? First, I thought he was on the DL, and second, right field? Clicked back later to see Swisher out there. Yeah, that's what I thought. :-)

Sec 204 Row H Seat 7 said...

Agree Andrew, too many men lob (of course the METS left more). Bernadina's last AB was a bit pathetic. Dribble called him out on it. Last I heard, NJ was DH'ing for the Yanks and is hurt.

A DC Wonk said...

Why not mention Storen? After all, he did pitch last night, and, "retired all five batters he faced, striking out one."

I can understand waiting until June for Strasburg, both on account of that you have to be very careful with a 21-year old starter's arm, as well as six-year-rights and all that.

But Storen? It's not like after six years he's going to command anything like Strasburg. And he can be broken in slowly -- pitching in the sixth or seventh innings until he gets used to the bigs, etc.


Jack T. in Florida said...

Not to mention he deserve's some sort of recognition from the club for signing as quickly as he did.

natsfan1a said...

sec 204, yes, I'd also heard that about Nick the Stick.

Anonymous said...

Mike Daniel A 188 hitter in his third year in AA, please tell me how the Nats screwed him around. It's a business people.

Unknown said...

I stopped reading at Bruney's quote in the third paragraph. Sorry if this is covered in the rest of the article and/or the comments. His quote really deserves a response:

Brian Bruney- SHUT THE F@$K UP!!! You are a waste of a roster space on this team. You are the Daniel Cabrera of 2010. YOU THREW A PITCH SO BAD THAT IT HIT THE BACKSTOP ON THE FLY LAST NIGHT! Just stop talking. I cannot wait until you are DFA'd when Storen comes up. Just shut up until that day.

I apologize fore the interruption.

Carl in 309 said...

Though much of our attention has been on the pitching staff--starters and relievers--and much of the commentary has been generally upbeat, our talk this morning about needing a blowout (in our favor of course!) and some larger late inning leads is what concerns me at present. I was generally of the impression that we would be stronger offensively this season than last and that with the addition of bats like Pudge and Kennedy, we'd be more prolific in scoring. I was struck the other evening, listening to Brett Haver on Channel 9 (and apologies if I've harped on this already), he noted that as the team was going to be trying to get their 15th win (it ultimately took them two tries to get to that number), they were 20 runs behind last year's pace at the corresponding date. 20 RUNS! I can't image that that differential has gotten smaller these few days later. So, what's not happening?

I'm ready for a couple of American League East-style wins!

lowcountry said...

I'm thinking that Pudge doesn't wear a wig, 1a (even though he certainly deserved it).

Pete said...

Not to be a total pessimist, but I'm worried that the adage that water finds its level may prove true with this squad. They bullpen, save Clip and Capps, is pretty bad. The offense goes silent for long stretches. Riggleman has to pull Dunn & Willingham late in games because they're defensive liabilities, which means if you don't hold the lead then the lineup has no punch. I just get the feeling that these one run wins could very quickly turn into one run losses.

Jack T. in Florida said...

But until they do, enjoy the fact that we are 4 games over .500.

Before the season, everyone fretted over the first 40 games and how we'd fare against several play off teams.

Now people are fretting over winning by one run.

I just don't get it.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Anon 8:21: I saw Daniel play a couple of times, both in spring training and in the minors. Didn't leave much of a lasting impression. Physically, he's not a real big guy. Seemed like his best hope was to make it as a high batting average guy. A .249 average in three seasons at Class AA didn't bode well for that.

Anonymous said...

Actually it looks as if English did not take his demotion well. He has not been one of the better relief guys in Syracuse. Next up will likely be Peralta, Storen, and perhaps Andrew Kown who really deserves Batista's job more than Batista. That's for damned sure. He's only be doing it well both last and this year in Syracuse. Those two should have been swapped.

Steve M. said...

Adam Kilgore @WaPo wrote...Walker had a 5.51 ERA. The Nationals had lost all nine games in which he pitched. Earlier in the day, Walker changed his number from 25 to 39. His wife told him to get something with a three, because it was lucky. "We're going to mix it up," Walker said.

So Walker was an imperfect 9 for 9. Now he is a perfect 1 for 1. The cup is more than 1/2 full my friends.

This really does seem like 2005 all over again except there are guys to promote to key spots in the rotation and bullpen. I just don't see offensive help anywhere to promote so Rizzo will have to trade pitching for a RF if the Nats are still competing in 60 days.

I think at this point, the offense has to be more efficient with men on base. CARL IN 309 pointing out the team is 20+ runs behind last years pace (with the addition of better offensive personnel) which is the reason the games are so close.

Some explanations for the runs deficit: Zim out 1/2 of the games and Dunn's early slump and ZERO production out of RF and Desmond batting .250+ and some credit goes to facing tough opposing pitching early in the season.

Anonymous said...

Riggleman has been pulling Willingham and Dunn in the later innings because it's been working. Willingham has been less likely to get pulled because of his late inning heroics. But so has Willie Harris in tight games and his UZR in left field is pretty good. Lots of web gems out in left.

In right Bernadina, Harris, and Taveras are not hitting well. Its pick one. Only Guzman hits when he is placed out there.

Anonymous said...

I just don't see offensive help anywhere to promote so Rizzo will have to trade pitching for a RF if the Nats are still competing in 60 days.

Uhhh, look again. Mike Morse, Chase Lambin, and Mench has not been doing badly. Plus Chris Duncan seems to be improving dramatically? According to Rizzo they are going to try to find solutions internally before going outside.

Morse is almost done with rehab and he will be returned to the team. The guy raked through two AAA leagues last year and had stats that made him look like Jason Heyward who spent the entire year in AA. So, stop with the really inane AAAA comments? What is out there to play right field ... even starting look an awful lot like AAAA to me? Even Upton has now dropped to .245. Werth? Really? Right now your old pal Austin Kearns is looking pretty good by comparison. Get real.

Section 222 said...

Jack T -- to be a Nats fan is to fret. Don't worry about it. I guarantee you that all the fretters are excited about how we're doing. I know I am, and I'm still full of fretting advice.

I'm worried about the late game defensive switches too. Seems to me at least one of our big bats should stay in the game unless we're up by more than a few runs. Frankly, though Dunn may be a bigger defensive liability than Willingham, it's more important to get a fleet outfielder in the game than the marginal improvement from Dunn to Kennedy (or Morse when he returns) at the less defensively important first base.

I'm all for sending Clip to Anaheim, but we're already seeing a deterioration even though he's gotten lucky and picked up a few wins. Relievers need to be able to put out fires as well as throw a good seventh or eighth inning when they come in at the beginning. Hoping for some improvement there and Bruney's outing last night was encouraging. He is a terrible interview though, I agree.

Anonymous said...

Stop with the Mike Morse-Jason Heyward comparisons. They are embarrassing. They are nothing alike despite what the numbers tell you. Plus, Morse is like 7 years older and hit in a lot more hitter-friendly league. Not a comparison at all. Stop feeding into the garbage dribble that Peric posts

Steve M. said...

Aeoliano said...

Uhhh, look again. Mike Morse, Chase Lambin, and Mench has not been doing badly.

According to Rizzo they are going to try to find solutions internally before going outside.

Mench maybe. Lambin is an infielder, can he play RF? Morse will help as he is solid off of the bench where he seems to thrive.

The problem with all of these guys are they are "maybes" and not sure things.

It's a huge jump from AAA to the MLB. Just look at Bernadina---he was a superstar 2 weeks ago in AAA. With that said, I think Bernadina could work out, just was tough watching a good bunter look little league at trying to sacrifice bunt last night.

Anonymous said...

i won't fret about all the defensive replacements loss of potential offense in case we lose a late lead.

we play small ball in extra innings anyway. if willingham and dunn are replaced, everyone else can bunt and steal bases. that's okay too. i bet capps and clippard have benefitted quite a bit from having the best defense out there each time.

hard to complain when it's working. i like an active manager. i think the players do too.


erocks33 said...

As I see it, the Nats have two immediate concerns with their roster ... Marquis and Morse. Morse is due to come off his rehab any time now. Do they call him up, and if so, who do they remove from the 25-man? I would pluck Taveras off (either option him to AAA or release him) as he is not an offensive upgrade and he bats righty like Morse does. Platoon Morse and Harris in right. This keeps Bernadina on the bench to pinch hit/run/defensive replacement.

As for Marquis, if his rehab starts go well, who do the Nats take out of the rotation? Stammen and Atilano would be the top two contenders, but both have pitched well enough to keep (not lights out, but they've pitched well enough to keep the Nats in the game). Does Atilano get sent down to Syracuse so he can keep pitching every 5th day? Or do you move Stammen to the bullpen and jettison one of the relievers? Batista could be excised and Stammen made your long-reliever, or they could option Slaten or Burnett down to Syracuse.

And don't get me started on what they'll do once Strasburg and Storen come up in June ... there's gonna be a slew of moves that'll need to be done in order to bring just these two guys up. Storen will need to be added to the 40-man roster which means someone will have to be removed (Traded? DFA'd?). It's going to be a very interesting next four weeks around here ...

Doc said...

I'd like to see some stats on late inning defensive replacements. Willie Harris in LF, yeah that makes sense. Kennedy replacing Dunn, less so. Dunn is probably, at this point, equal to or greater than Kennedy at defense.

Its a different AD with the glove this year. Kennedy vs Dunn with a bat--not much of a contest there, particularly if the game goes into extra innings.

Anonymous said...

Mark, given the prominence of the silver Elvis wig has been given, it might be nice to share with us who got it. I generally assume it is Debbi Taylor's first interview, but can't be sure.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Anon: To be honest, I often don't get to see the Elvis wig. Seems like the criteria is that the player wear it while being interviewed on MASN. Sometimes, they keep it on for the mass interview in the clubhouse, but often that hasn't been the case. Probably for the best, because it's kind of hard to keep a straight face listening to those guys talk with that thing on their heads!

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