Evaluating the Nationals as they approach the trade deadline may be getting a whole lot more interesting.
Over the last few months there have been times where closer appeared to be a growing concern. Even as Jonathan Papelbon racked up saves, often he would find trouble in the ninth. At times, he didn't look like he still had the stuff to make batters swing and miss and many pointed it out.
But since he's returned from the disabled list, Papelbon has not only pitched two strong outings, he's looked revitalized on the mound. The 35-year-old closer landed on the DL throwing 89-91. Now he's hitting 92-93 and is more menacing because of it.
"He’s stronger, it was almost like getting a new player back," manager Dusty Baker said after the Nats' 7-4 win over the Brewers.
Papelbon saw one runner reach base in the ninth inning of Wednesday, but only because of an error. He finished with three strikeouts and no hits or walks charged to him. Of his 17 pitches, 12 were strikes.
In his first game back on July 4, also against Milwaukee, he struck out two and also didn't give up a hit or a walk. Of his 13 pitches that afternoon, eight of them were strikes.
Papelbon needed some convincing to take a stint on the DL for his intercostal strain, but Baker believes the team is seeing the benefits of his time off.
"Those couple weeks, we didn’t like [missing him] but it’s almost like it’s helped him get his strength back," Baker explained.
"Rarely during the course of the year do you have that time to get your strength back and fill your tank back up because when you're playing everyday everyday, just like your car goes down slowly and you really don’t have much time to, eight or six hours, whatever time to sleep is not enough time to fill back up. But Pap had two weeks, he worked extremely hard and he went down to the minor leagues and looked sharp there and so you can tell by his location that he’s sharp and he’s strong."
The Nationals still have three weeks and three days until the Aug. 1 trade deadline and will closely evaluate their roster as it approaches. Bullpen still appears to be a relative need and the sense around MLB is that they would like to add a reliever. They usually add at least one around this time of the year. Papelbon came over in 2015 and they acquired lefty Matt Thornton the year before.
Last season showed the Nationals how being complacent at the deadline can backfire. They failed to improve their offense and, with the benefit of hindsight, outfielder was their biggest need.
The Nationals instead upgraded the backend of their bullpen by bringing in Papelbon and for various reasons it did not work out. They may still need help there this season, but Papelbon so far has proven himself well through two games back in the picture.
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