The Never-Ending Struggles of the Washington Nationals Bullpen

6.57 is a seemingly harmless number. But for the Washington Nationals, it is something else. It is a number representative of their perennial struggles and underwhelming start to 2019. A number that is the culmination of years of incompetence, ignorance, and cheapness by Nationals top brass and ownership. Because 6.57 is the ERA of the bullpen of the Nationals.

To fully understand the agony that a number such as 6.57 represents for the Nationals and their fans, one must put themselves in the shoes of a Nationals fan. In 2005, after 33 years of no baseball team playing in the nation’s capital, Washington finally got the major league baseball team they deserved. And with what they got, well, they might have been better off without one at all. What they got was the Expos of Montreal, a franchise which had won a grand total of one whopping playoff series since the beginning of time. And very quickly, Washington became accustomed to the tradition they had practiced with all of their other sports teams lately: losing. And a lot of it.

The year is 2012. The Washington Nationals are about to play in their first playoff series. In the first seven seasons of their existence, they had finished in last place 5 times, including a pair of 100-loss seasons. But this year was different. The Nationals came out of nowhere, taking the baseball world by storm, winning 98 games (and the first seed in the National League), and getting the hopes up of the, albeit the relatively few, but diehard, Nationals fans. Game 5 of the NLDS has come against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nats and Cards had taken a hard-fought series to the distance. Gio Gonzalez had pitched 5 strong innings, and the Nationals offense exploded early and amassed a large lead. Enter, the Nationals Bullpen: The 6-0 lead attained earlier slowly spiraled downward into a 9-7 loss. A heartbreaking end to such a promising season. Thanks, Bullpen. But the Nationals Bullpen isn’t an automatic failure solely because of some game 6 years ago.

The year is 2014. The Nationals have made the playoffs again. Their first round opponent this time, the Giants of San Francisco. In Game 4, the Nationals are down 2-1. But they are refusing to go down without a fight. After a strong outing by again, Gio Gonzalez, enter: the Nationals Bullpen. With the game tied at 2 runs apiece, the bullpen does what the bullpen always seems to do in Washington: blow the game. And so it did. Another promising season, ending in sadness for fans of the Nationals.

The year is 2016. The Nationals lead the Dodgers 2-1, and are one win away from finally winning their first-ever playoff series. And as the icing on the cake, they have home field advantage. With the game tied at 5, enter: the Nationals Bullpen. But it’s all fine, we still have game 5. After having a 1-0 lead for since the second inning, in the seventh, Dusty Baker made the curious, and ultimately career-ending decision to pull Max Scherzer in favor of the bullpen. It took five pitchers to finish that inning. Let me write that again. It took FIVE pitchers to finish that inning. Needless to say, they lost the game, and the series.

The year is 2017. Another year, another chance to win a playoff series. This time, against the Chicago Cubs. You know how the story goes. After a start by Gio Gonzalez, he leaves the game, with a lead, and the bullpen does the rest. Game 5 was lost 9-8.

But this year, 2019, is slightly different from all the rest. This is not a story of the Nationals dominating throughout the season only to have the bullpen choke at the last possible second. This year is the year of the bullpen being absolutely horrible way before the playoffs even begin. It is late April, and the number is 6.57. Good for 29th in Major League Baseball, right ahead of the Baltimore Orioles, who have an excuse. They’re supposed to suck.

5.40. 8.18. 8.10. 6.14. 4.05. 36.00. 162.00. These are ERAs of the individual members of the Nationals Bullpen as of today. Sean Doolittle and Kyle Barraclough have been bright spots, their ERAs not being included in the monstrosity listed above.

The question is WHY. WHY is this happening. The answer is cheapness. Last off-season, the Lerners, the multi-billionaire owners of the Nationals, refused to go over the luxury tax threshold two years in a row. They’re right up against it now, and is the obvious reason they refused to pay Bryce Harper, or sign Craig Kimbrel right now. Their second-most used pitcher has an ERA in the 5’s, strictly out of cheapness on the part of some multi-billionaires who will have more money than we can ever dream of having, and their callous desire to have a few extra million laying around just in case. Many Nationals fans have been calling for the head of General Manager Mike Rizzo, as he did, after all, put together this bullpen. But go ahead, fire him. Appease the fans. The next guy that takes his place won’t be able to do any better, because he won’t have any more money to work with than Rizzo does. The problem is not in the front office, the problem comes straight from the top. And nothing will ever change until either the Lerners either decide they want to be competitive, or until they sell the team to someone that does.

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