Dusty Baker talked during the last homestand about the devastating effect blown saves and late-game losses can have on a team.
It not only affects your own team negatively, the veteran skipper explained, it boosts the confidence of opposing teams.
“I knew that a long time ago, that one of the biggest downers is a blown save,” Baker said, “because it carries over and it also carries over to the opposition, where they think, ‘Hey, man, we can get in their bullpen and win the game.’
“And so we have to reverse that thought process and that trend that when it gets to the sixth and seventh inning — on the real good teams that I’ve had you get to the sixth and seventh innings, we know it and they know that the game is over.
“And so we just to got to go back to the drawing board, and try to figure it out.”
No one is sitting on their hands, of course. General Manager Mike Rizzo tried to acquire a closer this winter, making pitches for Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, and more, with no luck, before deciding that the search would continue within the organization.
While the search continues inside and outside of the organization, Baker said, the Nationals were doing everything they could to sort things out.
“Those guys down there, they’re trying, big time, and they’re all going crazy trying to figure it out along with [Pitching Coach] Mike Maddux and myself.”
“It’s a big downer when you lose games late,” Baker added after another bullpen blow-up in the first game of a doubleheader with the Philadelphia Phillies, “but hey man, we just got to go back and try to win this game and go forward.”
It’s also a big downer, Rizzo told USA TODAY’S Bob Nightengale, when you’re nine games over .500 with a 7.0-game lead in the division and all anyone wants to talk about is your bullpen struggles.
“Losing games in the ninth inning has been so demoralizing. It’s certainly not the way you want to go through a season. You look at our team, and all of the great performances and great seasons we’re having, and nobody is talking about it. It’s all about the bullpen and how those guys are struggling. It gets old.
“We’ve got guys that are underperforming in the bullpen, and that’s on me to take care of it.”
How to take care of it is the question, of course, since, as Baker noted last week, no one is going to gift you a lock down closer at this point in the season.
“We have to look within right now,” Baker said. “People know when you’re in need and when they know you’re in need then they have to rob you of your system.”
Erick Fedde, the top pitching prospect, is converting to relief work for now so he can potentially help out of the major league bullpen. There are other options in the Nats’ organization, like Trevor Gott or Austin Adams. Sammy Solis could help to get outs if he’s able to return from the nerve irritation in his left elbow.
In the end, however, it seems likely the answer is going to come from outside.
Nightengale, citing “executives with direct knowledge” of the Nationals’ talks with the Chicago White Sox about David Robertson this offseason, wrote this weekend that the two sides came close to a second big trade after the 3-for-1 deal that sent prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning to the South Side in exchange for Adam Eaton.
“The Nationals... were to send 19-year-old left-hander Jesus Luzardo and minor league infielder Drew Ward to the White Sox for Robertson, with the White Sox eating about half of the $25 million remaining in [Robertson’s] contract. But the deal got hung up over money.”
Luzardo, 19, is the Nationals’ 2016 3rd Round pick, described by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo on the day of the Draft last season as a "Day 1 talent" with three "at least average pitches" who went on Day 2 because of an elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery.
He signed a well-above-slot $1.4M deal with the Nats after they selected him, and is scheduled to begin throwing again in July.
Ward, 22, is a 2013 3rd Round pick who put up a combined .252/.348/.412 line with 23 doubles and 14 home runs in 117 games and 471 plate appearances between High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg last season.
In 37 games and 156 PAs at Double-A Harrisburg this season, the power-hitting, left-handed swinging third baseman has a .271/.365/.457 line with nine doubles and five home runs.
Robertson, 32, has saved five games this season (in six opportunities), posting a 2.81 ERA, a 2.23 FIP, six walks (3.38 BB/9) and 22 Ks (12.38 K/9) in 16 innings. He’s making $12M this season, and under contract for $13M in 2018, so the Nationals would have more than a few months of a solid back-end arm if they acquired him now.
“We’re not afraid to make a trade,” Rizzo told USA TODAY, “but the supply and demand of these elite relievers are far and between. They’re so hard to get.”
“We’ll see what’s available at the trade deadline, but right now we have to depend on the guys we have,” Rizzo says. “We’ve got five relievers that are way underperforming to their average. They’ve all done it in the past, but right now these guys are struggling.”
Koda Glover closed out Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Braves, but as Nightengale notes, Baker stuck with Stephen Strasburg as long as he possibly could, 118 pitches in 7 2⁄3 IP, before going to Glover for a four-out save that stopped a four-game losing streak and helped the Nationals avoid a sweep in SunTrust Park.
Will Shawn Kelley bounce back back to his 2016 form? Will Joe Blanton’s shoulder heal with some time off? Will Solis return to stabilize the bullpen some?
Will Blake Treinen return to doing what he did last season, as a shutdown reliever in the middle innings after he crashed and burned as the first reliever to get a shot at closing out games this season?
Will Rizzo find the right deal or deals that will solve the Nationals’ bullpen issues?
Will the Nationals wait until the trade deadline, or strike now, and do what they can to bring the issues in the bullpen to an end sooner rather than later?