Ninth-inning disaster overshadowed solid week for Nationals’ bullpen

Before Sunday’s debacle against the Giants, Nationals manager Dave Martinez touted his bullpen for its recent success.

But he didn’t knock on wood.

Later that day, the bullpen imploded in the ninth inning, allowing four free bases, five hits and six runs to cap off an abysmal series sweep versus San Francisco — a loss that extended the team’s losing streak to five.

As the Nationals sit at 6-12 early into a season that’s expected by many to be a long one, the team’s pen — with Sunday as a notable exception — has been a bright spot for the rebuilding club.

Despite the poor performance Sunday, Martinez’s pregame praise for his relievers was justified. In the six games prior to the 12-3 loss, the Nationals’ bullpen compiled a 0.94 earned-run average, stymying hitters to a .190 batting average. Four of the six games featured scoreless relief outings from the pen.

“The bullpen has been really good. They’re throwing the ball well,” Martinez said before Sunday’s game. “Nobody gives [bullpen coach] Ricky Bones credit. He’s done well with them so far, getting them ready and prepared for when they come into games.”

Before Sunday’s game, reliever Kyle Finnegan said the success of his fellow penmates is “contagious” for the entire group. Finnegan, a 30-year-old right-hander, is one of the team’s top returning relievers and has the bullpen’s lone win of the year along with a 4.05 ERA and eight strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. He, along with closer Tanner Rainey (0.00 ERA, three saves) and Victor Arano (2.00 ERA, 14 strikeouts in nine innings), have been the best relievers for the Nationals this spring. Veteran Sean Doolittle was also dominant in his six outings before being placed on the 10-day injured list with an elbow sprain.

“I think we’ve been doing a great job going in and attacking hitters, trying to give that early pressure on the hitters,” Finnegan said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of having short and efficient outings.”

Of course, a single inning shouldn’t undo the positive trends from Washington’s bullpen, which was ranked as the worst relief group in the National League last season. But it sure felt like it did.

The never-ending ninth featured three different Nationals relievers — lefty Sam Clay, sidearmer Steve Cishek and veteran Paolo Espino — who couldn’t stop the merry-go-round. Martinez said after the game that the free bases, three of which were issued by Clay to load the bases, were the main culprit of the disastrous inning.

“We talk about that every day with them. You can’t come in and walk batters, and obviously we hit a couple, too,” Martinez said after the loss. “You’ve got to come in and throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.”

The six-run frame didn’t just make for an embarrassing end to a blowout, but it also inflated the bullpen’s numbers. As of Monday afternoon, Washington’s relief group ranks 21st in ERA (4.10), as well as third-to-last in walks and hits per innings pitched (1.39) and batting average against (.251). However, take away Sunday’s ninth inning, and the pen’s season-long ERA would be a solid 3.46.

The 4.10 ERA, while well below league average, is much better than last season’s mark of 5.08. It’s also more than two runs better than the putrid 6.72 ERA the starting rotation has posted through 18 games. Overall, Washington’s 5.41 team ERA is the worst in baseball.

The consistently poor performances from the rotation — from expensive Patrick Corbin to youngster Joan Adon — has put extra stress on the pen. No MLB team has asked its bullpen to throw more than the 79 innings Nationals relievers have eaten up in 18 games.

“They’ve been pitching a lot, but we’ve also been taking care of them. There haven’t been a lot of guys who have gone back to back days,” Martinez said. “It’s unfortunate that our starting pitching isn’ t going deeper into games, but [the relievers] understand their role.”

Another complicating factor for the bullpen is the reconstruction the Nationals will undergo May 1 when the roster shrinks back to 26 players instead of the 28 that are allowed in April due to a shortened spring training caused by the lockout.

But after Sunday’s meltdown, Martinez and his relievers are hoping they got all the walks, hit by pitches and runs out of their system before the club’s home series against the Marlins followed by a nine-game road trip.

“Hopefully that’s out of them today, and they come back Tuesday and get right back to what they were doing the previous games,” Martinez said.

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