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The good, the bad, and the ugly from the Nationals series against the Pirates

The Pirates pillaged the Nationals by stealing a series win in the nation’s capital. Here’s the good, bad and ugly from the three-game series...

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After a positive series in Philadelphia, the Washington Nationals came home with momentum on their side. But sadly, they finished the three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates with a familiar feeling of what could’ve been.

The Nats were in all of these games and the lineup never quit, scoring plenty of runs in the late innings. But the bullpen storyline continues to rear its ugly head again, costing the team dearly.

It’s time for our look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly takeaways from the series.

The Good

Starting rotation flexes its muscles

After their rotation failed them badly during the 2018 season, it looks like a completely different story in 2019. This series against the Pirates only emphasized that as the Nats’ starter dominated over the weekend.

Patrick Corbin started it off on Friday with seven innings of one-run ball, striking out 11. Then Anibal Sanchez allowed just two runs in seven dominant innings on Saturday, while Max Scherzer posted a quality start allowing three runs in eight innings of work.

Funnily enough, despite the three quality starts from the trio, neither was able to record a win. Corbin and Scherzer fell victim to bullpen struggles, while the offense showed up late after Sanchez departed on Saturday.

Entering Sunday Night Baseball, the Nationals ranked ninth in the majors and fifth in the National League in starter’s ERA at 3.69. For reference, the team’s rotation held a 4.03 ERA as it became their primary weakness during a faltering campaign.

The Nats were right to invest heavily in their rotation this winter. So far, it seems to be paying off in 2019, even if other areas have let them down.

Back-to-back theme on Saturday

D.C. sports certainly had three minutes to remember on Saturday afternoon.

The Washington Capitals had just scored an overtime winner to go 2-0 up against the Carolina Hurricanes in their quest to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. News filtered through to Nats Park as the hosts trailed 2-1 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth.

That news even made it to Adam Eaton in the middle of his at-bat that inning. The outfielder added to the celebrations by depositing a game-tying home run into the left-center bleachers.

But the Nationals weren’t done there. The suddenly scorching-hot Howie Kendrick made it back-to-back blasts on back-to-back pitches. That gave Sean Doolittle a chance to lock down his first save of the season and clinch a 3-2 win for the Nats.

Even though the overall result of the series was a disappointment, Saturday is a day fans of both the Nats and Caps won’t forget in a hurry.

The Bad

Bottom of the lineup struggles

Entering the season, the Nationals’ lineup appeared to have a lot of strength in depth. Brian Dozier occupied the seven spot in the order to begin the year, while Victor Robles was on fire during the opening weeks of his rookie season.

But now with the injury to Trea Turner, Dozier has controversially been moved up to the second spot in the lineup, with Wilmer Difo filling his old spot. The results from the lower part of the batting order weren’t pretty during this particular series...

The team’s 6th, 7th, and 9th hitters went a combined 3-for-25 during the series with the Pirates. In fact, the Nats starting pitchers outperformed the bottom of the order hitters by going 3-for-7 in the series.

There’s not much doubt that this is just a blip in what will likely be a terrific rookie season for Robles. But Difo’s struggles are far more concerning with Turner still likely weeks away from returning. Dozier needs to step up.

With the bullpen the way it is, the whole lineup needs to produce, even the bottom half.

Justin Miller put on ice

We have the weekly bullpen section coming up soon, but the Nats lost reliever Justin Miller to a lower back strain during this series. He was put on the 10-day Injured List, with Spring Training standout Austen Williams replacing him.

Miller had seemingly become one of the more trusted arms for manager Dave Martinez early on. He didn’t allow an earned run in his first four appearances, striking out six in 3.2 innings.

But those first four outings came in the team’s first six games and perhaps overuse may explain why he struggled after that. He allowed at least one earned run in each of his next three outings with reduced velocity.

While Williams could easily carry over his spring form, Miller was a reliever that Martinez clearly trusted, leaving an already ailing bullpen short an arm. Perhaps an extended layoff can get him back to the guy we saw at the very start the year. Time will tell.

The Ugly

Here we go again...

After a one week stay in “The Good” of the series recaps, the Nationals’ bullpen finds itself back in its true home. The performance from the group arguably turned a series the Nats could easily have swept into a defeat.

They ended up allowing a combined six runs in five innings of work, with five of those runs earned. The bullpen’s 7.75 ERA leaves them last in the majors in that category yet again.

On Friday, Tony Sipp allowed a pair of singles and both runners came around to score on a single allowed by Kyle Barraclough. Then Matt Grace and Justin Miller combined to allow three runs on a Colin Moran home run in extras to help lose a winnable game.

Then on Sunday, Wander Suero, who had become one of the more dependable arms recently, allowed the winning run to score in the top of the ninth.

While Martinez’s usage of the bullpen has been questionable at best, there’s only so much he can do when every reliever not named Sean Doolittle is tough to rely on.

Next up: After a day off on Monday to enjoy another Caps playoff game, the San Francisco Giants arrive at Nationals Park. Stephen Strasburg, Jeremy Hellickson and Patrick Corbin are lined up to start for the Nats in the three-game set.