Bullpen fluctuations from Sean Doolittle and others again create hole for Nationals


Trevor Rosenthal entered a tie game in the ninth inning Tuesday. That sentence is likely to make Nationals fans shiver and wonder why a cold, prickly feeling just shot up their spine.

Rosenthal was working the spot as the Kansas City Royals closer. He has three saves, 10 strikeouts in eight innings, a 1.13 ERA and 0.625 WHIP. He’s thrown strikes 71 percent of the time this season after throwing baseballs to the backstop last year.

Out in San Francisco, another Trevor is working well as the Giants closer. Trevor Gott has a league-leading four saves and a 1.50 ERA. His WHIP is 1.000, though his numbers are more hollow than Rosenthal’s. Gott is striking out far fewer batters and dealing with runners more often.

Both were in Washington previously. Neither should be here now, especially Rosenthal, who was among the largest miscalculations in Major League Baseball in 2019. His season went so poorly, Davey Martinez was asked if Rosenthal had the yips. The Nationals eventually released the person who was supposed to be their setup man to start 2019. But, the good starts by the two Trevors this season define two truths: relievers are fickle, and that fickleness always seems to mess with the Nationals.


Sean Doolittle’s appearance Monday did little to suggest he is coming out of his funk this year. He faced four batters in a blowout against the New York Mets. All four made hard contact. One hit a home run. A running catch in left field by Josh Harrison -- a ball Juan Soto likely does not get to -- saved him from further problems. Doolittle has significant velocity and action problems with his pitches. In March, he was expected to be the closer. He quickly slid back to setup man, to left-handed matchup pitcher, to now being dispatched with crossed fingers in low-leverage situations.


Setup man Will Harris has thrown just 1 1/3 innings this year because of a groin injury. Though, he’s expected back Wednesday.

Their failures and lack of availability has forced adjustments. Javy Guerra has moved into the later innings. He has numbers similar to Rosenthal a year after being cut by Toronto and the Nationals. Guerra was used for mop-up duty last season. He’s an affable personality, can pitch often, throws strikes with a fair amount of regularity. This year, his outcomes -- and a need for someone to perform -- have sent him into the seventh inning.

Tanner Rainey has developed into the Nationals best reliever. Though he’s not the closer, he’s often used against the heftiest part of the opposing team’s lineup. Multiple players -- from Max Scherzer to Trea Turner -- recently said Rainey has some of the best stuff in the league. Command is the only question for him, as it is for so many hard throwers quickly elevated to the major leagues.

Daniel Hudson remains the closer. The question is if his arm holds up throughout the season following such heavy usage last season before odd preparation in 2020.

All of the chaos in the Nationals’ bullpen -- an annual tradition -- leads to another question: will they bother to make a trade before the Aug. 31 deadline?


The deadline may show how much teams truly value winning in a 60-game season. Do they care enough to move prospects, even low-level ones, for short-term help? Is anything worth a month of work from a reliever, plus the postseason? If so, what would it be?

The Nationals could use the help because another year of unpredictability has produced a need. They acquired Doolittle to solve a problem in the past. They traded for Hudson to solve a problem last season. Maybe they can trade for Rosenthal to shore things up this year.

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