Another blown save loss ruined a gem

The bullpen ineptitude continues, and while last night’s reliever meltdown was not the worst we have seen, it ruined a 6-inning, 2-hit scoreless gem, by starter Josiah Gray. A 1-0 lead in the late innings feels as dangerous as walking on a tightrope with no safety net, and because the margin for error was so slim, Mason Thompson fell hard — and his team with him.

Coming into this game, the Washington Nationals had 19 blown saves and 21 bullpen losses, of course the game ended with one more stake to each lung that left us gasping to breathe. The Nats have had 38 games decided out of the bullpen with an uninspiring 16-22 record, but the 5.45 ERA is 2nd worst in the Majors and the K/9 of 7.46 is by far the worst in the Majors. They just don’t miss enough bats like you need for a bullpen. Last night was the perfect example of two strike counts that ended with counting on BABIP — and a swinging bunt and a misplayed blooped single to center field were the start to how two runs scored in the eighth inning last night.

“When you play a team like that, you’ve got to put up as many runs as possible …”

“We’ve got to start swinging the bats. We’ve got guys on third base with less than two outs in games like this, and those runs are important. We’ve got to have better at-bats [by executing] any way you can to get the ball [deep] in the outfield. We’ve got to do a better job of that.”

— Manager Dave Martinez‘s rationalization in the past that the offense has to take some responsibility in these types of losses

The Nats just came off of an incredible come-from-behind walk-off win, and you hoped this team had a winning streak in them. Nope. Both starting pitchers in this game turned this into a pitcher’s duel. It felt like the game would be decided in the bullpens, and it was. The Mets went 3.0 scoreless in their bullpen and incredibly during the 1:37 rain delay in that fateful eighth inning — the Mets traded their closer, David Robertson, to the Marlins. He had literally been warming up, and then disappeared.

Do you want to know another team that has 38 games decided out of their bullpen? The Philadelphia Phillies. Their bullpen record is 24-14 with a 3.78 ERA with the third best blown saves of just 11. They’ve had bullpen injuries, and when you wonder how that team has stayed in the Wild Card hunt, there is your answer. If the Nats had the Phillies bullpen record, the Nats would have a 51-52 record and just 1.0 game under .500. The Phillies don’t even have the best bullpen as the Yankees take those bragging rights. But maybe the Nats would be better than 51-52 because Martinez would not have to be pushing his starters as hard as he seemingly has to.

The Nats’ worst inning statistically is that seventh inning with a 6.03 ERA and a .880 OPS against. It’s that confluence too often of pushing a tiring a starter or a weak reliever. But if you just look at pushing pitch counts approaching 80 pitches and over, Patrick Corbin‘s OPS goes to 1.078, Trevor Williams at .833, and Chad Kuhl went to that point five times with a 1.524 OPS. The analytics tells you that the engine is redlining. Yet, the manager goes there time and again with diminishing returns because he fears it would be worse going to his bullpen. Picking up that phone to call the bullpen has to feel like a call to the executioner in a game of Russian roulette.

Martinez has had to do one heck of a balancing act with his bullpen of horrors. You want a better team for 2024? Start with fixing the bullpen. Next is to accept the analytics because we sure know Corbin is not going to change. He has a 4.14 ERA in his first 3.0 innings in games this year. It goes to 7.24 in the sixth inning, and 14.73 past that. Caveat emptor and don’t be shocked what you get if you are buying long games from Corbin. Know your players.

There is an ole saying that if relievers were any good they would be starters. Let’s face it, most relievers are formerly failed starters. It’s a given in the game, and yet the Nats have just been awful at building bullpens and that falls on general manager Mike Rizzo more than Martinez. If the Nats knew how to develop bullpen arms internally, they would be in a much different spot as a team.

On May 16, the Nats entered the 9th inning with an 18-23 record and were ready to celebrate a 4-2 come-from-behind win after a great 3-run eighth inning put a blown save on the Marlins. Instead, Hunter Harvey lost his first game of the season in an excruciating walk-off, with another Gray gem that was wasted in a pitcher’s duel against a familiar name: Jesus Luzardo, a former Nats’ top prospect who Rizzo traded to get reliever help back at the 2017 trade deadline. Ironic. But the irony should not be lost on that day that spun the Nats into a dark place. It’s when we realized that the bullpen was going to be this team’s weakest link and instead of that momentum the team built in Minnesota from a 5-13 record to get a chance to be 19-23 evaporated in the Miami heat. Instead of 19-31 vibes — we were feeling 19-23 vibes and a 14-10 run since Minnesota. But instead, it was the reality of the situation that the bullpen would chip away at the progress of the starting pitchers and the scrappy Nats offense. The wins of that 5-1 homestand got the dose of reality last night for a team trying to avoid a 3-digit loss season.

And here we are at the crossroads of another trade deadline fearing that this team can only get worse by trading away some of the team’s good players, as we wonder if Rizzo can fix the bullpen in the offseason and turn the switch from rebuild to a team of winners. That’s the painful balancing act on the tightrope as we look at the bigger picture and so many unknowns as we feel at times that we are teetering on the edge. A farm system that is ranked 6th by FanGraphs in all of baseball shows the future is bright — but we don’t know the offseason plan as to the direction in the near-term. We just have to keep the faith, and know at some point it has to get better. In the meantime, welcome to the bullpen rollercoaster of ineptitude.

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