The impetus for last week's Jonathan Papelbon trade wasn't so much about the Nationals trying to bolster the ninth inning as it was about bolstering the seventh and eighth innings. Mike Rizzo already knew he had an elite closer in Drew Storen; what he didn't have were consistently reliable setup men to bridge the gap from starter to Storen.
One week since the blockbuster deal, the Nationals general manager's grand vision has been working to near-perfection. Papelbon is 2-for-2 in save opportunities since joining his new club, but the real stars of the Nats bullpen have been the guys pitching in front of him: Casey Janssen and Storen.
And Tuesday night's 5-4 victory over the Diamondbacks was perhaps the most striking example of that to date. Janssen entered for the top of the seventh inning of what was then a 3-3 game and proceeded to retire the side on seven pitches, six of them strikes. Then Storen cruised through the top of the eighth, also retiring the side, this time on nine pitches, all of them strikes.
If not for those crucial zeroes posted in the seventh and eighth innings, the Nationals might never be in position to win the game.
"To have guys down there that are quality arms, that can get outs, it just gives you more confidence as a team," said Max Scherzer, who threw 114 pitches over six innings before giving way to the bullpen. "We can continue to run out guys that can shut down innings. Having Papelbon here, it's a big plus."
That's because it allows manager Matt Williams to go to another pair of experienced, late-inning relievers earlier in games. It begins with Janssen, who after a frustrating first half of the season that included a long DL stint and then some inconsistent performances, has turned electric since. Over his last nine appearances, he has tossed 8 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and a walk while striking out 10.
"I feel like I'm throwing the ball like I should and like I know how to throw," the 34-year-old right-hander said. "Obviously getting ahead helps out a lot. Getting the first out of every inning. The standard stuff. But I'm just commanding the ball to both sides of the plate well and hitting on my offspeed pitches when I need to."
The Nationals expected to count on Janssen for big outs late in games when they signed him over the winter to a contract that guaranteed at least $5 million. It took some time, though, for the veteran reliever to earn Williams' trust.
Janssen doesn't fault his manager for that, recognizing the onus was on him to perform.
"I was just a body down there, I felt like," he said. "I feel like they didn't know what they were going to get every time. And I know what I can do. It was just a matter of me showing them. And once they continued to see it, it was like, 'Hey, this is the guy we signed in the offseason that was supposed to help.' Obviously I'm getting to that point, and now I just need to continue it and kind of stamp it."
Janssen has become utterly dominant, but Storen has managed to take things to an entirely different level in the last week. His personal disappointment in the Papelbon trade is no secret, but the former closer has managed to channel those emotions into perhaps the best stretch of his pitching career.
In four appearances since Papelbon was acquired, Storen has faced 12 batters. He has retired all 12, striking out six. And he has thrown 32 of his 35 pitches for strikes.
"It's just about repeating your delivery," he said of this recent surge. "I've been able to do that. I feel very comfortable with where my mechanics are right now, and I'm throwing it where I want to. It's a good thing."
Tuesday's performance was especially impressive for Storen, given the fact he was facing the heart of the Diamondbacks' lineup (A.J. Pollack, Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta) for the second straight night. He has retired all three both times.
"Any tie game is tough," he said. "Then [you have] to couple it with 2-3-4, who are some very good hitters. Then you've got to think about how I faced those guys last night, so they won't be seeing anything new. You've got to make sure you execute in those situations."
The manner in which Storen has responded to a difficult situation over the last week hasn't been lost on his teammates.
"It shows how professional he is," Janssen said. "It shows how good of a pitcher he is. ... Probably deep down he wasn't pumped [about] it, but he accepted it and has done a tremendous job. We need him to pitch well and to get the ball into Pap's hand in the ninth. Sometimes it's a thankless job, because everyone just hears about the closer. But we appreciate him a lot."