Toward the end of the season, the D.C. bullpen, for one reason or another, was frequent topic of conversation in Washington Nationals' Manager Jim Riggleman's pre and postgame meetings with the press. Asked in one such late-September gathering if he felt the Washington Nationals' relievers were ending the season as strong with Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Collin Balester and Sean Burnett as they were when the Nats started the 2010 campaign with Matt Capps the standout bullpen star (side-by-side w/ Tyler Clippard), Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman admitted that he didn't necessarily think it was, "...because Matt [Capps] was so good for us, but we've really had a good year out of our bullpen. They've been really good."
"Clippard has been outstanding," Riggleman told the D.C. press corps, "Storen is coming along, [Joel] Peralta has been outstanding, [Miguel] Batista's eaten up innings for us and pitched in every role that you could have somebody pitch in, so they've really done a good job. [Nats' Pitching Coach] Jimmy Lett's down there with them every day monitoring what's going on, and he's done a great job with that bullpen. They've really kind of come together as a group and picked each other up very nicely, and it's a good group to move forward with."
Collin Balester finished the 2010 season with 11 games and 13.1 IP in September in which the 24-year-old '04 4th Round pick allowed 6 hits, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 HR and 7 walks while recording 16 K's in his longest stretch in the majors last season. "A couple other managers have been talking about this lately, about how it just seems like every night, every club has two or three guys throwing 95 to 98 mph in the bullpen and it's nice to put a guy like that out there," Riggleman said in another late-season press conference when asked about Balester. "Clippard, the radar gun will say 93, but it really plays about 97, because his changeup and the level that he throws his fastball, it plays about 97, that's why you see so many swings and misses, and we need another guy like that, and I think that Balester's shown that he's going to be in the mix for that."
"Last year I heard so much about Balester," Riggleman continued, "...about this curve ball, and how great it is and I felt like, 'You know what, he hangs too many of them.' When you throw a curve ball as your best pitch and you throw it a lot you just, by the percentages you're going to hang some of them and big league hitters are going to get you, so I was a little concerned about that. But since he's been here this year, I've seen the breaking ball that I heard about, to go along with his very good fastball, his breaking ball has been a put away pitch for him. He's got it down in the zone, it's got great rotation on it, it's a swing and miss pitch and nobody's hitting him right now. His numbers are outstanding and he's making a case for us to come into Spring [Training] and maybe show us that he can be that extra plus arm in the bullpen."
That's actually how a season of interviews with Jim Riggleman ended. The final question of the season discussed one-time starter Collin Balester's future in the Nats' bullpen. A few days earlier, the Nationals' manager had talked about another former starter who'd transitioned to the pen in 2010. Craig Stammen's valuable, Riggleman said then, because he can do, "...whatever the club needs. If we need a starter we know he can start. If there's not a spot in the rotation, we know he that he's durable. He's been able to pitch a couple days in a row, multiple innings, gets ready quick. I think he can do a good job for us in either role or whatever the need is."
Earlier in the final homestand of 2010, following a 4-2 win over the Atlanta Braves in which Livan Hernandez, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen had combined to frustrate an impatient opponent, Riggleman praised both the left-handed reliever and the Nats' potential future closer. "[Burnett's] been unbelievable," Riggleman said, "our bullpen in general has just done a great job, but for "Burnie" to be getting lefties and righties out for us the way he does and to be up as much as we've had him up, we've had him in a lot of games, but he's been up a lot, and I say the same thing about Clippard and Peralta, both of them, along with Burnie, they've been asked to do a lot for us and our bullpen has got more innings pitched than anybody in baseball so, for them to be going this strong this late in the year, it's really a testament to their preparation and the confidence that they're building."
"There's really been very few hiccups," with Storen during his rookie season, Riggleman said after he'd recorded his 5th and final save of the season that afternoon. "He [went] out there today in a tough situation and had outstanding stuff, maybe as good stuff as we've seen him throw all year, just really devastating breaking ball and threw strikes with his fastball, so it's part of the process you go through with a young guy like that, but he's done well."
Storen's gunning for that closer's role as he told the Sirius/XM MLB Network's Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy in a recent interview. Clippard, Balester, Burnett, Peralta, Stammen, Doug Slaten and possibily other fringe/transitioning starters like J.D. Martin, Garrett Mock and Luis Atilano. Even now without an established closer like Capps, and having not yet made any offseason additions to the pen, the Nationals are far better off in the relief corps than they were before D.C. GM MIke Rizzo took over and began addressing a roster weakness that former general manager Jim Bowden had failed to. On a team with holes at first, in the middle of the order, outfield and the top (and back arguably) of the rotation, the bullpen, if the success stories of 2010 are repeated and the rest of the pen shows improvement, is one aspect of the Nats' roster they can be comfortable with heading toward Spring Training.