Nats getting bullpen back in order

795714.png

Nats getting bullpen back in order

They've gone through four different closers. They've had five different guys succumb to injury. And they've been forced to readjust roles far too many times already in a season that's only 2 12 months old.

Through it all, the Nationals bullpen has managed to get the job done and enters the week third in the NL with a 3.11 ERA, second in the league with a .217 opponents' batting average and third in the league with a .655 opponents' OPS.

"I think the bullpen has performed great," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Yeah, they've been mixing and matching, and there's been role adjustments and personnel adjustments and a lot of different things going on. But I think they've done great."

Successful or not, the Nationals have been counting down the days until they could get their full complement of relievers back together as one cohesive unit. They're almost there at last.

Ryan Mattheus' return from the disabled list yesterday helped bring some order back to the bullpen (though it cost veteran Brad Lidge his job). Henry Rodriguez is due to return from the DL himself "very soon," according to Rizzo.

And most importantly, closer Drew Storen continues to progress in his recovery from elbow surgery and remains confident he can make his season debut around next month's All-Star break.

"It feels really good. It feels a lot stronger," said Storen, who has been throwing off a mound three days a week. "I just know we're still on track for that All-Star break."

Storen's impending return will be particularly beneficial to a Nationals relief corps that has done its best to fill in for its injured closer but could certainly use some stability in the ninth-inning role ... not to mention some added depth for the seventh and eighth innings.

Though Tyler Clippard has gone a perfect 9-for-9 in save opportunities over the last three weeks, the right-hander figures to slide back into his setup role once Storen returns. Paired with left-hander Sean Burnett (who boasts a 1.17 ERA), the Nationals could boast as dominant a bullpen trio as there is in baseball.

Each reliever who returns, however, requires an open roster spot, which leads to some difficult decisions for Rizzo. He already made a tough call yesterday designating Lidge for assignment after the veteran right-hander was scored upon in three of four appearances since returning from sports hernia surgery.

And there will be more changes to come in the next few weeks.

"It's very tough, because when the music stops, someone's going to be left without a chair," Rizzo said. "You look at the number of people there, there's going to be a very talented, very successful person, whoever that is."

One such dilemma would seem to involve Rodriguez, the flame-throwing right-hander who dazzled early this season with his triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling breaking ball but who lost all ability to throw strikes before landing on the DL with a minor finger strain.

What do the Nationals do with Rodriguez, who is out of minor-league options and would almost certainly be claimed off waivers by another club that can afford to use a roster spot on a pitcher still trying to work out his issues?

As one club official put it bluntly: "Henry's not going anywhere."

Not wanting to give up on a reliever with that kind of dominant repertoire -- especially after seeing Joel Hanrahan resurrect his career in Pittsburgh after getting shipped out of Washington three years ago following a similar bout of wildness -- the Nationals are determined to keep Rodriguez and hope he discovers some semblance of consistency.

The Nationals do face a dilemma foreign to them over the last several years. In the past, when they sat well back in the NL East, they could afford to use a roster spot or two on "projects," guys who might struggle at times right now but could pay off down the road.

Does that philosophy change now that they're in first place?

"No," Rizzo said. "We're never going to forgo depth and talent over immediacy. We're never going to do that."

That approach could wind up forcing a productive pitcher who happens to still have options (ie. Mattheus or Craig Stammen) back to Class AAA at some point. It's a sacrifice the organization would be willing to make to ensure they maintain as much depth as possible over a season that could extend into October.

In the meantime, they'll just keep mixing and matching whatever group of seven relievers they currently have, hoping this unit can continue to perform despite the constant change.

"Davey's done a great job keeping guys in roles, for as much as they've been moving around," Storen said. "In the past, it's been kind of random roles even when guys were healthy. He does a great job of defining that. I think they've done a great job adjusting and hanging with them, because there's been some injuries dealt and some big changes around."

NL East: Barry Bonds wouldn't take picture with Dodgers star Pederson

natsinsideaccessmatzmetsrefframe_1.jpg

NL East: Barry Bonds wouldn't take picture with Dodgers star Pederson

Apparently being an MLB All-Star and home run derby runner-up is not enough for Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds to take a picture with you.

That's according to Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, a 2015 NL All-Star. He said he tried to take a picture with Bonds before a Marlins-Dodgers game last month and got rejected.

Ouch. Pederson described the interaction on Fox Sports Live and it sounds like he was pretty surprised by Bonds' reaction. Then again, who wouldn't be? It seems like a simple request.

Many athletes current and former take pictures with fans all the time and those are just fans. It would seem even more likely to get that picture if you are part of their fraternity as a pro ball player.

Here is Pederson describing the exchange on FS1:

[Via Sports Illustrated]

Daniel Murphy owns up to costly error after loss to Mets

chasestl052416refframe_1.jpg

Daniel Murphy owns up to costly error after loss to Mets

The margin for error is always going to be slim when you're facing your most closely-matched division rival and when they've got a pitcher as lethal as lefty Steven Matz on the mound, and on Wednesday it was a mistake by Daniel Murphy at second base that loomed large in a 2-0 Nationals loss to the New York Mets.

With the Nats down a run in the seventh inning and Mets infielder Matt Reynolds on first base, first baseman Eric Campbell smacked a hard groundball to Murphy at second. It shot up to the left of his glove and through his legs into center field.

That put runners on the corners with one out and set up an RBI single to left field by Mets catcher Rene Rivera. The score was then 2-0 and that would hold until the final out was made.

After the game Murphy brought up his mistake on his own when asked an unrelated question. 

"I misplayed another groundball, which just needs to stop happening. I just need to work harder on that," Murphy said of his team-high fifth error of the season.

Murphy came to the Nats with a reputation for subpar defensive play and this was the most obvious case so far of it affecting the outcome of a game. Though the Nats didn't score any runs on the day, Murphy explained how he thinks his mistake altered the momentum and scope of the contest.

"I think it was a double play ball and [Tanner Roark] should have gotten out of the inning. Then it was 2-0 and it just changes our approach from an offensive perspective," he said.

Murphy was asked if the ball took a bad bounce and he declined to go there, instead referring to the sequence as a "bad play by me."

His manager, Dusty Baker, didn't fault Murphy for the loss and instead focused on the dominant performance by Mets starter Steven Matz.

"Errors are part of the game," Baker said.

Baker, of course, can live with the occasional error as long as Murphy is atop the majors with a .394 batting average. Murphy's OPS is 1.043 and he's on pace for a career-high in homers. He's been as important to the Nationals' first-place start through 47 games as anybody.

Murphy knows defense is an area of game that needs improvement and Baker is not too concerned about it at this point.

"Murph works hard at it, he works very hard and he takes it hard when he doesn't make the plays," Baker said.

Matz too much as Mets take finale and series against Nationals

chasestl052416refframe_1.jpg

Matz too much as Mets take finale and series against Nationals

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 2-0 loss to the New York Mets on Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Facing any pitcher for the first time can be a challenge, especially when that foe is an emerging star lefty with a mid-90s sinker that dives over the plate like a fighter jet.

Mets southpaw Steven Matz has had his way with the Nationals on Wednesday, just as he has with the rest of the league in his brief MLB career. He went eight efficient, shutout innings with just four hits allowed, at times retiring Nationals hitters with leisure. Perhaps they'll have better luck the next time they see him, but this simply wasn't their day.

Matz outdueled Nats starter Tanner Roark, who was pretty good himself. He went seven innings with two runs allowed, only one of them earned. The second came home after a Daniel Murphy error that ultimately proved a costly one.

What it means: The Mets have evened up the season series at 3-3 and cut the Nats' division lead back to a half-game in the NL East. The Nationals fell to 28-19 on the year with the St. Louis Cardinals up next.

Roark strong again: Roark was excellent in his first meeting with the Mets of this season despite giving up an early run on a homer to David Wright in the first inning. The right-hander settled in after that and at one point retired eight in a row from the second through the fourth. Roark did let another run in in the seventh inning before he was removed, but it wasn't earned. That's thanks to Murphy's error on a hard-hit groundball right to him by Eric Campbell. Murphy couldn't corral it and that set up runners on the corners for Rene Rivera, who singled to left field to make it 2-0 Mets. It was Murphy's fifth error this season, most on the Nationals.

Roark finished with seven innings and one earned run on five hits, two walks and five strikeouts. He threw 113 total pitches and made it at least seven innings for the fifth time in 10 starts this season. It was the sixth time he's gone at least six innings with one earned run or less allowed. It's also the fourth time this season he's reached the 110-pitch mark.

Matz tough in first matchup: This was the first time the Nationals had ever faced Matz and the lefty certainly didn't take it easy on them. Matz dazzled with a mid-90s sinker combined with a sharp slider to go eight shutout innings. He was pulled after throwing 104 pitches with seven strikeouts and just four hits and a walk allowed. Michael Taylor, Wilson Ramos, Clint Robinson and Murphy were the only ones to get hits off of him. Matz held Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon to a combined 0-for-9 with three strikeouts. Before giving up the hit to Robinson - who pinch-hit in the eighth - he had retired 16 straight batters. He allowed Robinson's single with two outs and then got Bryce Harper - who also pinch-hit - to ground out and end the frame.

Murphy nears Nats record: Murphy may have committed a costly error, but he also inched closer to setting a Nationals record for most hits in a single month with an infield single in the first inning on Wednesday. That gave him 38 hits in the month, just two away from Denard Span's record of 40 set in August of 2014. The Nats have six more games left in May, plenty of time for Murphy to break it. And if he does, he will have set a Nats hits record in just his second month with the team.

Schu ejected: Nats hitting coach Rick Schu was tossed by home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn in the bottom of the fifth for arguing about the strike zone. It happened after Chris Heisey struck out looking against Matz. Schu was seen on the TV replay in the dugout taunting Reyburn by waving his hand over his head. It was Schu's first ejection as a member of the Nats' coaching staff.

Good attendance: The Nats and Mets drew 38,700 for the series finale on Wednesday. That's a sellout and the second-largest crowd of the season so far at Nationals Park.

Up next: The Nationals turn their attention towards the St. Louis Cardinals, who come to Washington for a four-game series through the weekend. Thursday's series opener will pit Joe Ross (3-4, 2.70) against Cardinals right-hander Mike Leake (3-3, 4.07) with a 7:05 p.m. first pitch.