Thursday, April 7, 2011, 6:17 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
MIAMI -- The Washington Nationals know they need to get better performances from members of their bullpen not named Sean Burnett, Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard. They just don't know who among the rest of the group is most likely to do it.
While their top three relievers have pitched well through the season's first week, collectively posting an 0.93 ERA entering Thursday night's game against the Florida Marlins, the Nationals' four other bullpen members are sporting a 15.63 ERA.
Left-hander Doug Slaten and right-handers Todd Coffey, Chad Gaudin and Brian Broderick have all struggled so far in 2011, to the point where Jim Riggleman isn't always comfortable using them in close games. Eventually, though, the manager knows someone from that group is going to have to step up when called upon.
"It's not like they're not a challenge for hitters," Riggleman said. "They've got good arms. They've got good stuff."
Slaten, though, remains a lefty specialist who typically faces only one or two batters. Gaudin is supposed to serve as the club's long reliever and emergency starter, though he's been used more in middle relief so far this season. Coffey issued a pair of walks Wednesday night and was ejected after arguing with plate umpire Tim Tschida.
Broderick, meanwhile, has made only one appearance (a disastrous outing in Washington on Sunday in which the rookie allowed four runs and committed a balk with the bases loaded). His status as a Rule 5 draftee -- he can't be sent to the minors without first being offered back to the St. Louis Cardinals -- leaves the Nationals in a pickle where they have to protect him from meaningful situations.
"We're being real careful with Broderick right now," Riggleman said, adding: "I don't really want to put him in there where the weight is all on him to carry the decision."
Broderick, who came up through the Cardinals' system as a starter, is antsy to return to the mound after his shaky big-league debut.
"I want to get back out there as soon as I can," he said. "I got my feet wet and got things going. Now it's a new day. I have to turn the page and continue to do what I've got to do."
The Nationals could have a pair of alternatives waiting in the wings at Class AAA Syracuse. Collin Balester, who posted a 1.59 ERA in spring training, is eligible to be recalled as soon as Sunday (the season's 10th day). Fellow right-hander Henry Rodriguez, meanwhile, was set to begin a rehab assignment Thursday at Class AA Harrisburg, pitching two innings. (Rodriguez, on the disabled list with a strained neck, is likely to use most or all of his 30 maximum days on rehab before returning).
Michael Morse got his first game of the season off Thursday, benched after a 2-for-17 start.
In the past, when he wasn't a lineup regular, that might have given the Morse reason to worry about his status. Now, though, he knows the left field job is his, so he doesn't stress over the mini-slump.
"I wake up in the morning, and I'm just so happy," Morse said. "It's more that I'm so excited that I'm play every day and getting to bat fifth in this lineup. Maybe I'm too excited. I just need to calm down and be myself and just play."
Morse clubbed nine homers during spring training (second-most in the majors) but thinks his swing has been slightly out of whack since the regular season began.
"I'm seeing the ball way too out in front right now," he said. "I'm probably a little overanxious. I just need to let the ball travel a little deeper and hit it the other way."
With Morse on the bench Thursday, veteran Laynce Nix started in left field and batted eighth. Rookie catcher Wilson Ramos (who entered with five hits in 10 at-bats) was bumped up to Morse's usual 5-spot.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.