In the 13th game of a stretch where the Nationals play on 15 consecutive days, the last thing Washington needed was a an extra-inning game. Despite a quality start from John Lannan, and timely hitting from the Nats batters, the club couldn't hold on and lost 4-3 in the bottom of the 10th at Wrigley.
In the end it all came down to a worn-out bullpen. Brian Bruney looked absolutely gassed in the 10th inning, his second inning of work, walking two batters including a game winning free pass on four pitches to Aramis Ramirez with the bases loaded. Bruney's final losing pitch was his 25th of the night, the most he had pitched since Apr. 5 in a 1-11 loss to Philadelphia.
But what was manager Jim Riggleman to do? Capps and Clippard were both unavailable because they had pitched previously on consecutive nights, Miguel Batistia had pitched three innings only two nights before, and the only arm left in the pen who was fresh was Jesse English. Not wanting to waste his last arm he left Bruney in to see if he could finish out the inning, instead the reliever gave Chicago the win on a free pass.
A breakdown of bullpen use during the 13-game streak
Capps: 6 appearances, 7.1 IP, 2 back-to-back appearances
Clippard: 6 appearances, 8.1 IP, 2 back-to-back appearances
Bruney: 7 appearances, 7 IP, 0 back-to-back appearances
Batista: 4 appearances, 10 IP, 1 back-to-back appearance
Burnett: 5 appearances, 2.2 IP, 1 back-to-back-to-back appearance
Walker: 3 appearances, 6.1 IP, 0 back-to-back appearances
English: 3 appearances, 4.2 IP, 0 back-to-back appearances
The overuse of the bullpen hasn't exactly been Riggleman's fault. As you can see above, he has done a good job of evening out the innings between the pitchers, but poor starting pitching in some spots has led the bullpen to have to mop-up a lot of difficult innings. Scott Olsen failed to get out of the third inning in one start, Stammen only recorded 1.1 innings in another, and Jason Marquis couldn't even muster one out in his start against the Brewers.
Even when the Nationals starting pitchers are throwing well, only Livan Hernandez has a realistic chance of consistently pitching into the seventh inning and beyond. The simple fact is that while each of Washington's starters have had glimpses of excellence at times, they are for the most part finesse pitchers who throw a lot of pitches in a short amount of time. They work the count, and try to get hitters off-balance. Unless you're rubber-armed Livan Hernandez, that approach won't get you very late in the game.
As a result, Washington needs to look at how they've structured their bullpen. Right now they have five relievers who are have trouble being effective if they are consistently left in for more than one inning; Capps, Bruney, Burnett, Walker, and English. Burnett and English are more effective as LOOGY's and Capps is a guy you want to have pitch in as many games as possible, so multiple inning outings need to be used sparingly.
Of the two pitchers who have the capability to go longer innings, Batista and Clippard, both are former starters. While Clippard has the ability to pitch as many as five innings in relief, he is Washington's most valuable asset out of the pen and the club should use him as often as possible. Just as with Matt Capps, this means the Nationals have to limit how many times he pitches two-or-more innings so they can pitch him more frequently. This leaves Batista who at this point in his career is only a mop-up guy, a pitcher who can be thrown in when bad situations arise.
So what can the Nationals do?
One option is to add another reliever, preferably Drew Storen, while getting rid of a bench player. The Nationals currently have five bats on the bench, three players who can play infield (Willie Harris, Alberto Gonzalez, and Cristian Guzman) and two outfielders (Willy Taveres and Justin Maxwell). If they demoted Maxwell or Gonzalez, the Nationals could bring up Storen as an eighth reliever. Storen has proved he is more than ready after already dominating the minors (1.83 ERA in two seasons) and could provide one to two innings on a nightly basis while learning the ropes of the big-league bullpen. This however can't be an option until the Nationals batters get healthy, they can't afford to lose a bat right now until Zimmerman is back.
The other option is that the Nationals demote Jesse English and call up a starter from the minors to serve as another long-inning guy. Give guys like J.D. Martin, Shairon Martis, Collin Balester, or even Aaron Thompson a chance at the show. English, while a good asset is young and may be better served by pitching more often in Syracuse, while guys like Martin, Martis, and Balester are slowly slipping past prospect status. Thompson is a guy who made outs in spring training and throughout the minors this spring, he could end up being a great addition to the bullpen.
Either way for the Nationals, Thursday's day off couldn't come soon enough for the bullpen.