Jun 2, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
It was cause for concern in April, but then cause for comfort in May. What, then, will the Nationals’ bullpen cause in June: Soothing relief or heartburn?
We won’t know the answer to that question for awhile, but we do know that group continues to deal with changes in personnel and in roles.
The Nationals already have used 16 different relievers in two months (OK, 15 plus outfielder-turned-mop-up-man Clint Robinson). That’s four more relievers than they used in all of 2014, only six shy of the club record set during an awful 2009 campaign.
More turnover came over the last few days, with Taylor Hill recalled from Class AAA Syracuse to assume Stephen Strasburg’s roster spot, then Felipe Rivero replacing Matt Grace on Monday in a swap of lefties that came on the heels of a rough weekend sweep at the hands of the Reds.
“It’s a little bit interchangeable,” manager Matt Williams said of bullpens in general. “And depending on who you have, sometimes the bullpen is fairly set for their roles, but sometimes you have to make adjustments.”
Williams has been forced to make plenty of adjustments so far when it comes to relievers’ roles. Aside from Drew Storen holding a firm grasp on the closer’s job, everyone else has been used in just about every situation to date this season.
Blake Treinen got a chance to pitch the eighth inning in April, but that didn’t work out too well. Aaron Barrett did perform well for awhile in that spot, but the second-year right-hander has given up eight runs in his last five innings and now sports a 5.19 ERA.
The delayed debut of Casey Janssen two weeks ago following shoulder tendinitis appeared to be a significant boost for this group, and it may yet prove to be just that. Janssen was fantastic in his first three outings, capped by a nifty escape act at Wrigley Field, but then the veteran was torched for four runs in the eighth inning of Saturday’s loss in Cincinnati.
“It’s still early in his process,” Williams said. “He had some really good outings, and then had one that wasn’t so good. He’s itching to get the ball again. He’s got experience; the resume speaks for itself. So he’s been in those pressure situations, he understands it. He’s a guy that fits in the back of that bullpen.”
The Nationals already have used five different lefties out of the pen — Matt Thornton, Xavier Cedeno, Sammy Solis, Rivero and Grace — and most have been used interchangeably. Thornton is by far the most experienced and accomplished southpaw in the group, but Williams has been careful not to run the 38-year-old into the ground so far: Thornton has pitched back-to-back days only three times this season and has made 11 of his 20 overall appearances on at least two days’ rest.
The loss of Craig Stammen to a season-ending forearm injury has been noticeable, and the recent move of Tanner Roark into the rotation to replace the injured Doug Fister also has diminished the Nationals’ bullpen.
Yet for the most part, this ever-changing group has gotten the job done. The Nats bullpen’s 3.58 ERA ranks sixth in the NL, its 2.58 strikeout-to-walk rate fifth in the league.
“There are adjustments that need to be made sometimes,” Williams said. “But what we want to have is going into the seventh, eighth and ninth with a lead. We’ll be able to have our guys go out there and hopefully be able to hold those runners down and win those games. We’ve seen that a lot. It’s happened a lot. The last three games not withstanding, it’s been fairly good.”
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