Matt Williams was asked, after yet another dagger of a loss Thursday evening, whether it’s fair to pin the Nationals’ overall predicament on a bullpen that seems to be at the center of just about every one of these.
“I wouldn’t believe that that would be fair,” the manager said, “to point at one thing and say: ‘That’s the reason.'”
Williams is correct. It’s never just about one thing. The Nationals find themselves in this scenario — trailing the Mets by 7 games with 10 to play after Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Orioles — for multiple reasons. Their lineup was never fully healthy. Their rotation didn’t live up to expectations. Their defense was suspect far too often. And their manager pushed too many wrong buttons at the wrong time.
But that bullpen certainly deserves to be near the top of the list, if not at the top, at least when discussing how the entire season has collapsed over the last month.
It happened again Thursday, with Blake Treinen handed a 4-3 lead in the top of the eighth and two batters later turning it into a 5-4 deficit. But this was far from the first time it happened.
Since Aug. 31, a stretch of 26 games, Nationals relievers have blown 7-of-10 save opportunities. (Note: That includes any lead blown by a reliever, regardless of inning, not merely the ninth.) That 30 percent conversion rate ranks 29th out of 30 MLB clubs, only the Padres worse. The seven blown saves are tied for the most in baseball, only the Tigers and Rays duplicating the feat.
“I’ve got confidence in the guys that come in,” Williams said. “They’re ready to pitch. They’re eager to pitch. They want the ball every single day. Part of my job is to show confidence in them and give them the ball and be supportive of them when they go out there. It didn’t work out today.”
Williams has to say that. A manager must express confidence in his players, especially an entire unit, no matter how much it struggles.
But deep down, how much confidence can Williams have in a group that in its current incarnation features only a couple of reliable-but-overworked arms, veterans hanging on by a thread in late September and young pitchers thrown into the fire for the first time?
The seven pitchers who threw the most innings in relief for the Nationals in 2014 were: Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard, Rafael Soriano, Jerry Blevins, Drew Storen and Aaron Barrett.
Not one of those relievers is currently pitching for the Nationals.
“Nobody wants to fail, especially with the implications that we’re still in the race,” Treinen said. “But to be a baseball player, you have to have a short-term memory. I think everybody’s learning curve is different. We just continue to pick up the ball every day when we get an opportunity and go out and compete as best we can.”
Who knows what might have been had the Nationals’ relief corps been merely adequate over the last month? They would at least be within striking distance of the Mets instead of on the precipice of elimination.
There will be ample time to dissect that once the season ends in 10 days. Until then, the Nationals will try to keep convincing themselves it’s not over, trying to believe somehow their biggest roster flaw can reverse course, no matter how implausible that sounds.
“It’s not great,” Williams said of his club’s current dilemma. “Not where we want to be. But tomorrow’s a game, and we have to play that game and we have to win that game. So, it is what it is. Need to be prepared for tomorrow.”