Bullpen pro­vides plenty of re­lief

Nats si­lence Cubs over last 4 in­nings, win again

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - BASEBALL - By Jesse Dougherty

CHICAGO — The bullpen door opened one last time Satur­day af­ter­noon, split­ting a crack into a wall of Wrigley Field ivy, re­veal­ing Daniel Hud­son be­fore he broke into a light jog.

Hud­son was the last of five re­liev­ers to en­ter for the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, fol­low­ing Wan­der Suero, Tan­ner Rainey, Hunter Strick­land and Fer­nando Rod­ney. He then got the fi­nal three outs of a 7-2 win over the Chicago Cubs, which gave Wash­ing­ton a three-game cush­ion atop the Na­tional League wild-card stand­ings and re­vealed how Dave Martinez may han­dle his bullpen un­til closer Sean Doolit­tle re­turns.

The five-run vic­tory didn’t in­clude a tra­di­tional “save op­por­tu­nity,” but it didn’t need to. Once the Cubs drew closer, and starter Joe Ross ex­ited af­ter 4 1⁄3 in­nings, Martinez had a puz­zle to piece to­gether.

It was the man­ager’s first chance to roll out this thinned, rested, evolv­ing bullpen for ex­tended work. And he pressed all the right but­tons, at least this time, for the Na­tion­als’ 11th win in 13 games. His re­liev­ers recorded the fi­nal 14 outs with­out giv­ing up a run.

When the Na­tion­als put Doolit­tle on the in­jured list last Sun­day, an­nounc­ing he had right knee ten­dini­tis, it made sense in a few ways: Doolit­tle’s arm needed rest and his head needed to be cleared, and 10 days off, or more, was an an­ti­dote for both. And the Na­tion­als were also head­ing into a soft part of their sched­ule, not count­ing the Cubs, which may have fac­tored into the de­ci­sion.

Doolit­tle can be ac­ti­vated Wed­nes­day, at the ear­li­est, and has be­gun throw­ing off a mound. But if the Na­tion­als wait un­til Sept. 1, three days beyond Doolit­tle’s min­i­mum IL stint, their ros­ter will ex­pand to 40 play­ers and he can be a de facto call-up.

Martinez has left that open as a pos­si­bil­ity. He’s con­fi­dent in his high­lever­age op­tions while Doolit­tle re­cov­ers. He just hadn’t had much chance to use them.

The Na­tion­als of­fense, mean­while, has con­tin­ued to make Martinez’s bullpen de­ci­sions less stress­ful. It has scored seven or more runs in 10 of the past 14 games.

Their starters had al­lowed two earned runs in 30 1⁄3 in­nings be­fore Ross took the mound. That hasn’t made for much late-in­ning drama. The only time there was some, in a 4-1 loss to the Pi­rates last Tues­day, the Na­tion­als’ bullpen blew it in the eighth and there was no save op­por­tu­nity.

“I like the fact that the games are lop­sided right now,” Martinez said with a laugh. “When the game de­cides to not be lop­sided, then we’ll make those de­ci­sions [about a closer].”

Satur­day threat­ened to turn into a tight con­test af­ter the Na­tion­als took a 5-0 lead, scor­ing once in the first and four times in the third, with Yan Gomes punc­tu­at­ing the rally with a two-run sin­gle. Ross, to that point, had held the Cubs down with a heavy diet of sinkers.

But trou­ble came in the third when three sin­gles brought in Chicago’s first run. Ross got out of the in­ning, wig­gled out of a jam in the fourth, then gave up a run-scor­ing dou­ble to Jonathan Lu­croy in the fifth.

That ended Ross’ out­ing at 88 pitches. Suero re­lieved in the mid­dle of a jam and stranded two run­ners in scor­ing po­si­tion with a strike­out and popout to short.

The Na­tion­als led 5-2 and needed 12 more outs from their bullpen. They added another run in the sixth, then Rainey worked a shaky, score­less bot­tom half. Then Martinez’s crit­i­cal de­ci­sions be­gan.

The man­ager has pegged Strick­land, Hud­son and Rod­ney as his likely op­tions for the seventh, and eighth and ninth. He has not, how­ever, spec­i­fied an in­ning or role for any of the three right­ies.

In­stead, Doolit­tle’s ab­sence should al­low Martinez to tin­ker based on matchups and sit­u­a­tions. It could lead to more in­ven­tive bullpen us­age, rather than fun­nel­ing ev­ery­thing to a des­ig­nated closer, and make the Na­tion­als a bit harder to pre­pare for. But that’s only if Martinez sticks to the prom­ise of cre­ativ­ity and his pitch­ers per­form.

Nei­ther was a prob­lem against the Cubs. He went with Strick­land in the seventh to face Nick Castel­lanos, Kris Bryant and Lu­croy, three right-handed hit­ters in the mid­dle of Chicago’s or­der. Strick­land struck out the side.

Martinez went with Rod­ney in the eighth, his spot when Doolit­tle was clos­ing ear­lier this sum­mer, and the 42-year-old went one-two-three on 12 pitches. The Na­tion­als cre­ated more sep­a­ra­tion in the ninth on Howie Kendrick’s RBI dou­ble, but Hud­son was warm­ing and en­tered any­way.

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