Washington Nationals: Is it plain sailing from here?

Washington is, it seems, never out of the world media spotlight. Usually, the madness of politics leaves scribes scratching their heads to find the right words, or a fresh way of capturing the mayhem which ripples around the world.

Nearly as many column inches are devoted to the Nats bullpen. If we felt so inclined, last year’s post with a few tweaks on the names and stats, would hold more or less true. This year, the question takes on a broader context.

The Nats are rightly favorites for the Eastern division. At the moment, the Astros hold the best record in baseball, and the Nationals are the top team in the most recent MLB.com Power Rankings. OK, that’s the complacency of the bleachers talking but so long as the players are professional on the diamond, fans prerogative, nay, duty, is to be over-confident.

After last season’s defeat to the Dodgers in the post-season, an expectation builds of a year-on-year improvement in performance. It’s the same across every sport; every team, every fan will tell you the same unless you’re a fan of the New England Patriots. Not everyone can enjoy that end result but so long as it isn’t your own team, it’s someone else’s problem.

This season’s record indicates a season-on-season improvement. Marginally; 28-17 was 27-18, .622 was  .600. In a sport of small margins, it’s not a spectacular improvement, but it is improvement. Would it be better if the bullpen was stronger? No doubt about that. Or not enough to cast doubt on that assertion of no doubt.

On course for the first rank in the postseason but it’s by no means certain. The Rockies own the best record in the NL and behind them are the Dodgers who are a few steps back with the Arizona Diamondbacks tucked between them; quite a big one for this stage of the season. Now the Nats need to capitalize on that if they are to back the bookies’ confidence; second favourites at +275.00 (Source: Betway) as of 14th May behind the Cubs.

Chicago is 23-21 at the moment, not out of touch in the Central Division but leaving themselves with some work to do in finding the form which justifies their tag as the team expected to successfully defend their World Series title.

Beat On The Nats With A Baseball Bat
The Front Office knows about the problem and does not deny it exists, which is half the battle. Their problem is that the received wisdom is unanimous in declaring no significant additions to the squad are currently on the horizon. Declarations depend on the information received, but unless the Chinese whispers are wildly off-kilter, there’s a nagging concern over postseason performance.

General Manager Mike Rizzo bears ultimate responsibility for the situation. The other Mike, Maddux, pitching coach, has to solve the current issue: loss of confidence.

Rather than hitting the ball out of the park, he bunted when he observed, was the solution.

“Through the course of the season, there are going to be times when every mistake you make gets hit. There are going to be times when it doesn’t.”

You don’t expect him to bear his soul but being disingenuous doesn’t massage the public perception of the situation, particularly when Blake Treinen describes the situation as a “head scratcher”.

Time at the moment, isn’t precious but can quickly become so. Deadlines don’t loom and a trade can be made quickly if both sides possess the will but until then, the rough with the smooth, is the order of the day. Within the bullpen – any part of the club – that’s leaving too much to chance.

Confidence is a precious commodity. It varies between players and just because one is out of sorts, doesn’t mean everyone is. Where it becomes an issue is when too many are affected. Rizzo can’t replace more than one or two in the bullpen without taking a wrecking ball to the season as a whole.

With the Eastern division waiting to be throttled by the Nats, the focus for the team is on the now; for Rizzo, it’s the future beyond the final pitch against Pittsburgh on October 1. Last year, the Dodgers turned the series around with two narrow victories. With the current state of the bullpen, it’s hard to envision a repeat of those circumstances taking place unless this current bullpen turns it around or a proven closer is acquired. This isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know.

Matt Albers is proving the most reliable closer at the moment, with the monkey off his back, but he appears to be moving back to a different role as Dusty Baker goes to Koda Glover. At 34-year-old, Matt Albers knows there’s nothing like an Indian summer for the journeyman but the question is whether it’s enough for the ultimate prize?

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