NEW YORK — For all the flashy pieces this Washington Nationals roster possesses, their biggest weakness and ugliest feature just cannot be hidden.
The starters are elite. The lineup is formidable. Their athleticism is eye-opening.
And then there’s the bullpen.
The bullpen that no team fears. The bullpen that entered Citi Field on Saturday night with the worst ERA in baseball.
A bullpen that routinely coughs up leads, like it has five straight times in the eighth inning or later here in Flushing, including the last two nights.
The Nationals’ bullpen is the biggest threat to this team’s postseason chances and has them now on the verge of being swept out of New York.
Saturday, Fernando Rodney, somehow a setup man for a team leading the NL wild-card race, allowed two runs in the eighth after being handed a one-run lead.
One of those runs came via a game-tying homer of light-hitting infielder Luis Guillorme, owner of 12 career homers in 2,600 minor-league plate appearances.
The Mets (61-56) added one more in the inning in their eventual 4-3 win, and the Nationals (61-55) bullpen now owns a 9.37 ERA with eight blown saves against the Mets, and a 14.81 ERA in the last five meetings between the two teams.
“It’s tough,” Nationals catcher Yan Gomes said. “It’s not something. I can promise you, wherein the eighth and ninth innings it comes around and we’re thinking about it. We bring in our guys we want to close the games out. Just been a little tough.”
The odds still favor the Nationals making the postseason, but with each blown save and game that slips away, it becomes harder to believe in this team’s chances even if they manage to return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.
Bad bullpens can cripple a team, and the Nationals’ pen, even after receiving three additional arms at the trade deadline, is still flammable, and especially against the Mets.
Teams with good bullpens can instill a certain fear in opponents if they have a lead when the starter exits. The Nationals are the opposite.
Their bullpen is the squeaky leg on a chair that always makes it a coin flip whether that chair will fall to the side or manage to hold its weight.
“Some bullpens are extremely good and some you can take advantage of,” McNeil said. “We’ve taken advantage of theirs the last few times.
These last five games at Citi Field have shown just how much the Nationals’ bullpen has hurt them and prevented them from making a run at the NL East crown.
You could excuse a team blowing one or two eighth-inning leads in a five-game stretch. But all five? Not even children’s movies feature that many late-inning rallies by a team without it feeling completely unrealistic.
These meltdowns have also featured five different relievers each taking a loss with Rodney taking his turn Saturday.
The Nationals needed only six outs to secure a resilient and impressive win just 24 hours after Doolittle let one slip away.
But, with the Nationals’ pen, it’s never that easy.
It speaks to the stat of the Nationals bullpen that Rodney, a 42-year-old with 6.00 ERA, is inheriting one-run leads against division rivals in August.
Yet, Nationals manager Davey Martinez had already burned through Hunter Strickland (who didn’t pitch two innings due to injury concerns) after making the questionable call to pull Patrick Corbin after allowing two runs on three hits and just 94 pitches.
Rodney fell behind in the count against Guillorme, and on a 3-2 pitch, hurled a 94-mph fastball that was right down the middle that was crushed to right-center to tie the game.
“Rodney has done well,” Martinez said. “He’s had a bad night today, but he’s done well.”
An error by Trea Turner on the next ball — a play that should have been made – put the go-ahead run aboard, and that run ultimately came around to score. A 3-2 lead became a 4-3 deficit. Two potential great wins instead turned into devastating losses.
“We’re playing a good team at a time that they’re hot. They’re scoring late,” Gomes said. “There’s way to go. We gotta get hot.”
The Nationals now have to try to avoid a sweep while facing reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, and should they lose while the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals also win, they will no longer occupy a wild-card spot.
While the players tried to downplay a “here we go again” feeling in the late innings, it’s become clear that this bullpen is unreliable.
There are still 45 games left in the Nationals’ season, but these two losses could be ones that are remembered if this season ends earlier than this team hoped.
And everyone will know the culprit, and where it happened.
“You can’t ride those waves, you can’t do that,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton told Yahoo Sports of this stretch of late-inning implosions at Citi Field. “Your rock bottoms are going to continue to be around [if you do] and if we’re worried about yesterday, it’s not going to be good. DeGrom doesn’t give a crap if we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. You got to keep working and good things are going to happen.”
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