Jun 12, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
On Tuesday night in New York, Max Scherzer took the mound for the bottom of the seventh in a 1-1 game, his pitch count at 100, and promptly gave up the runs that put the Yankees on top for good.
On Wednesday afternoon in New York, Gio Gonzalez took the mound for the bottom of the seventh in a game the Nationals led 2-0, his pitch count at 93, and promptly gave up the runs that let the Yankees tie the game.
And then on Thursday night in Milwaukee, Tanner Roark took the mound for the bottom of the seventh with the Nationals leading 5-4, his pitch count at 94, and promptly gave up the home run that let the Brewers tie the game en route to a 6-5 victory.
It doesn’t take much effort to spot the recurring theme here. Three straight days, the Nationals sent their starting pitcher back out for the seventh inning either trying to protect a lead or maintain a tie game, and three straight times that starter was unable to finish the inning before giving up multiple runs.
The problem is twofold: 1) Nationals starters, despite their lofty pedigree, are averaging only 5.8 innings per game, which ranks 22nd out of 30 MLB rotations, and 2) Nationals relievers, aside from closer Drew Storen, haven’t been consistently effective enough to leave Matt Williams comfortable enough to pull his starter even when he gets six quality innings.
And Thursday night’s loss at Miller Park, among the most frustrating of the season for the Nationals, was merely the latest example of all this playing out in such a fashion.
Roark hadn’t been in top form most of the evening, and particularly in the bottom of the sixth, when the Brewers produced four hard-hit balls off the right-hander (even though three of them went for outs). His pitch count at 94, Roark (who only joined the rotation two weeks ago after opening the season in the bullpen) appeared to be a strong candidate to have his night end right there.
Trouble is, Williams’ confidence level in the vast majority of his bullpen options right now is weak. Storen has been brilliant as closer. Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton have been effective far more than they haven’t, but Williams seems to be making a point not to work those veterans too much at this stage of the season, preferring they don’t pitch back-to-back days unless absolutely necessary.
So it was that Roark took the mound again for the bottom of the seventh, with the Nationals clinging to a 1-run lead. Which didn’t last very long. Roark served up a solo homer to the second batter he faced, Gerardo Parra, leaving the game tied and eventually leading to his departure and the summoning of rookie left-hander Felipe Rivero from the bullpen.
Then came the bottom of the eighth, in which Aaron Barrett gave up the eventual winning run via a strikeout that got away from catcher Wilson Ramos, a potential double-play grounder that turned into a costly error when second baseman Anthony Rendon’s throw to first skipped wide of Clint Robinson and rolled to the dugout railing, a groundout to first and then a jam-shot by Scooter Gennett that managed to sneak down the third-base line, bringing the runner home.
And all that only preceded Barrett’s final pitch of the eighth, a 92-mph fastball that sailed high above the plate and prompted Williams, pitching coach Steve McCatty and assistant athletic trainer Steve Gober to come to the mound to see if the young reliever was OK.
He wasn’t. Barrett, whose fastball has averaged 94 mph this season, appeared to be concerned as he spoke to the three men before handing the ball to Williams and making the slow walk back to the dugout. Williams offered zero information after the game, refusing to even reveal what part of Barrett’s body was injured and saying only the club hoped to know more Friday.
The insinuation, after all that, is that Barrett likely suffered a serious injury, though it’s impossible to know that for sure at this point.
What isn’t impossible to know is this: The Nationals bullpen remains a concern, an ever-changing unit of seven pitchers who individually and collectively have not offered up much in the way of consistency this season.
Perhaps new right-hander David Carpenter, acquired Thursday from the Yankees, will step right in and fill the void. Perhaps Janssen (who has tossed eight scoreless appearances but is remembered far more for a 4-run implosion in Cincinnati two weeks ago) will continue to pitch well and cement his status as Storen’s top setup man.
But those are far from sure developments, and they won’t do much to assuage anyone who is worried the bullpen as a whole is in bad shape right now.
All of which continues to leave Williams in a tough spot. In a perfect world, he’d feel comfortable enough with his relief options to pull his starters before they have a chance to blow a lead late. But right now, he simply can’t do that.
Until their bullpen stabilizes, the Nationals will just have to count on their vaunted rotation to start churning out more quality innings once they’ve surpassed the 100-pitch mark.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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