The Washington Nationals bullpen could be their Achilles Heel in the post season. While talk of pitcher Stephen Strasburg dominates Nationals news, the starting pitching should be fine. It is the bullpen which is a problem.
The Nationals 94-61 record has been accomplished with good starting pitching, solid defense and timely hitting. They are in great shape going into October, so if the team can get the bullpen straight, than they will be tough to beat.
The Nationals bullpen consists of Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett and Chien Ming Wang. They have been solid for most of the season, but not strong. In 66 save chances the team has just converted 50 of them, 75 percent, while blowing 16 saves. This ranks them behind the Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds; all of whom are in the playoffs.
Clippard has been the closer for most of the year. He has converted 32 out of his 37 save attempts and currently has an Earned Run Average at 3.75. However, last Friday he blew a critical save against the Milwaukee Brewers. Clippard came in after starter Edwin Jackson had staked him to a 2-1 lead. Clippard gave up a run on two hits and was removed as the Nationals lost 4-2. Against the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday, manager Davey Johnson brought Clippard in to pitch the eighth inning. He gave up another run on two hits and struck out two.
Storen pitched the ninth and shut the Phillies down. It was believed that Storen would be the closer at the beginning of the year, but an injury to his elbow put him on the disabled list, so Clippard took over. If Storen continues to pitch like he did on Wednesday, Johnson may be forced to give him the closer job back.
Washington has enough arms to shore up the bullpen in October, but if they decide to go to a five-man rotation John Lannan or Ross Detwiler may move to the pen. If they stay with a five-man rotation, then the pitchers who are there can get it done. It may not always be pretty, but post season baseball is supposed to be hard.
The Nationals bullpen struggles should be expected, as they are a young staff that is still learning. Johnson allows his pitchers to fight their way through situations before sitting them. This seems to be the case with Clippard.
This year the unit will have to learn under the ultimate fire of post season baseball, and it is their performance that may very well determine how far the Nationals go in 2012.