Ryan Zimmerman got the headlines Tuesday night, and rightfully so after launching the 10th walk-off homer of his career to beat the Yankees in dramatic fashion. But that blast off the right-field foul pole might not have been possible if not for some yeoman's work from the Nationals' bullpen, which was forced into both early and late action in this ballgame.
After Gio Gonzalez's once-dominant start went awry in a hurry, the Nats' relief corps was asked to churn out five innings against a deep, experienced New York lineup. It wound up churning out five zeroes, getting contributions from five different arms.
"It's big for us," said Drew Storen, who pitched the ninth. "Especially in a big game like this, to have guys come out of the pen and come up in big spots and just give us an opportunity to win late in the game is all that we're asked to do."
That bullpen hasn't excelled at posting zeroes at all times so far this season, with several April meltdowns of note during the club's ragged, 7-13 start. But with some tweaks in personnel and in roles, that group has delivered a number of impressive performances over the last three weeks, helping the Nationals win 16 of their last 20 games to catch the Mets atop the NL East.
"We have unbelievable arms," right-hander Blake Treinen said. "We may be a little young, with few veteran guys, but everybody out there has unbelievable stuff. And I feel like we match up well against anybody. Some of us, myself included, have struggled against lefties early in the year, and that's been my issue. But we all put in work to get better every day. We encourage each other. We've made big strides as a team. We're playing good baseball right now."
Treinen was front-and-center in Tuesday's win, the first man out of the pen to replace Gonzalez, asked to pitch two innings and bridge the gap to his late-inning mates. He wound up retiring 6-of-7 batters faced, striking out both Garrett Jones and Chris Young.
After struggling as the club's primary setup man early in the season, Treinen has rediscovered himself pitching in lower-leverage situations since. He has posted a 2.93 ERA over his last 10 appearances, and over his last 10 innings he has allowed only one run and five hits, striking out 11.
"He threw some good sliders down and in to lefties tonight," manager Matt Williams said. "He pitched really well, and he's got the ability to go out there and do that. Early on, he didn't have command off the lefty, and the ball would sail off the plate. But he's made that adjustment and he's pitching well."
Matt Thornton took over for Treinen in the top of the eighth and retired 2-of-3 batters before Aaron Barrett entered to get Jose Pirela to end the inning. Storen then retired the side in the ninth, striking out Alex Rodriguez with a 2-2 fastball on the outside corner that had the crowd of 37,355 roaring with approval.
"A guy I grew up watching and looked up to as a kid," Storen said of the now-39-year-old slugger. "[I was] a big Mariners fan growing up, so it was kind of cool for me to face him. I'm just trying to miss that barrel, because he does have the power there to change the game. I knew if I made a mistake I'd pay for it, so I tried not to do that."
Storen now sports a 1.10 ERA for the season (better than his sparkling 1.12 mark in 2014) and he has now retired 29 of the last 31 batters he has faced.
His appearance Tuesday came not in a save situation and merely helped get the game into extra innings, where Matt Grace awaited. The rookie left-hander did his job in the top of the 10th, pitching around a 2-out walk of Mark Teixeira by striking out both Young and Brian McCann, completing a remarkable, 5-scoreless-inning evening for the Nationals bullpen.
"I think our motto is just: Try to hand it off to the next guy," Barrett said. "Just keep the torch going. Keep making pitches and getting guys out and hand it off to the next guy. And tonight was one of those nights where everyone did great."