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The Washington Nationals need Trevor Rosenthal to regain his former success, and fast

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Attention Mark Lerner, Craig Kimbrel is on line two…

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MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Three games into Trevor Rosenthal’s tenure with the Washington Nationals, the early returns aren’t very promising.

Rosenthal has faced five batters and recorded zero outs. He was the fuse that ignited the bullpen’s implosion that put the game out of reach Saturday in an eventual 11-8 loss to the New York Mets; he then allowed the tying run to reach base Sunday before Trea Turner bailed Washington out with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth.

“I felt like I was really close,” Rosenthal told reporters after Saturday’s game. “Mechanically I felt really good … I think it’s just continue to get reps and dial it in as we get going here with playing more consistent games I think that will all fall into place.”

After missing all of 2018 to recover from Tommy John surgery, Rosenthal signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the Nationals this offseason to be the team’s primary set-up man. He has a $10 million team option for 2020 as well, which could prove to be a bargain if the former St. Louis Cardinals closer performs as expected.

From 2014-15, Rosenthal was one of the best relievers in baseball. He converted at least 45 saves in each of those seasons and was an All-Star in 2015. In 2016, however, the right-hander struggled with his command and lost six weeks to shoulder inflammation, ending the year with an unsightly 4.46 ERA. Rosenthal then battled a lat strain in 2017 that limited him to 47.2 innings before tearing his UCL in August and ending his Cardinals career.

Now back on the mound, Rosenthal is 28 years old and can still touch triple digits on the radar gun. His average velocity is a few ticks lower (97 mph on his fastball according to Brooks Baseball) than it was in 2017, but he’s thrown just 36 pitches thus far and it’s tough to judge anything from a sample size that small.

“He’s a high-intensity guy to begin with,” manager Davey Martinez said Saturday. “I think he got out there and was just really letting it go. I know he touched 100, but it’s more important [to have] location … He got a couple guys two strikes and couldn’t keep the ball down.”

Ever since the Nationals were connected to free agent closer Craig Kimbrel in early March, fans have clamored for the team to sign him and solidify the back end of its bullpen. Other late-inning arms Sean Doolittle, Tony Sipp and Kyle Barraclough have struggled in the first three games as well, further amplifying the calls for general manager Mike Rizzo to make additional moves.

Multiple reports have confirmed that Rizzo would very much like to sign Kimbrel, but that the Lerner family is weary of exceeding the $206 million luxury tax threshold. Cot’s Contracts pegs the Nationals at just over $197 million toward the tax with their current obligations, but that figure will certainly rise if players meet their performance incentives and/or Washington makes any moves at the trade deadline.

Kimbrel would also come at the added cost of the Nationals’ third- and fifth-round picks, as the former Boston Red Sox closer rejected a qualifying offer prior hitting the open market. Signing Patrick Corbin (who rejected a QO as well) already forced Washington to surrender its second-round pick, the compensatory selection it received after the fourth round for losing Bryce Harper as well as $1 million in international bonus pool money.

It’s a steep price to pay, and that doesn’t even include the approximate $2.5 million the Nats would be billed if they exceeded the threshold. He is, however, the only notable reliever outside Ryan Madson and AJ Ramos still available on the free-agent market.

In his weekly chat with readers, The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell said, “Everybody in the Nats organization, from players to front office, has been almost on one knee begging for the Lerners to do this for at least 3 weeks. Maybe much longer.” So the fans aren’t alone in their cries for more depth.

As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal pointed out, Kimbrel could wait until after the MLB draft in early June to forego the draft-pick compensation. That might be enough to convince the Nats to enter the bidding. But there’s no guarantee Kimbrel will wait that long and if Trevor Rosenthal and Co.’s struggles persist, Washington may have to make a move sooner.

The Nationals will likely ride out the bullpen in its current state for now and see if its struggling relief corps can return to form. They’re only three games into the season, after all.

But if the late-game roller coasters become a recurring theme as the season progresses, the pressure will only continue to mount on the Lerners.