Amid all the discussion surrounding the Washington Nationals bullpen, reliever Joe Blanton made an important observation. He said the team wasn’t satisfied with their performance in the first month of the season, and noted how the rotation has helped them out.
“We’re fortunate enough our starters have gone really deep in games,” Blanton said.
But at some point, the Nationals’ bullpen will have to produce.
Sunday wasn’t one of those days.
The Nationals (23-13) allowed three runs in the top of the ninth inning and lost 4-3 in the first of a doubleheader on Sunday. The bullpen blew their seventh save opportunity of the year.
“It’s all about location,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “Most of the time, if you throw the ball where you’re trying to locate it, they might get a hit, but they’re not going to hit it out of the ballpark. I think it’s a matter of location. Those guys down there, they’re trying big-time.
“They’re all going crazy trying to figure it out. (Pitching coach) Mike Maddux and myself, it’s a big downer you lose games late. But I mean, we just gotta go back and try to win this game and go forward.”
This time the damage was done by Shawn Kelley, who was named the primary closer over Blake Treinen on April 21.
In the ninth, Kelley (3-1) allowed a home run to Aaron Altherr, who sent a four-seam fastball over the left field wall. Kelley was inches away from giving up another home run to the next batter, but the ball bounced off the wall and Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco had a double.
Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp hit a double to drive in the tying run. Kelley was removed. Koda Glover then gave up a single to Ty Kelly to drive home Rupp.
Heading into the ninth, the Nationals led 3-1.
“At the end of the day, I didn’t make pitches,” said Kelley, who made his second appearance since being activated off the 10-day disabled list on Friday. “It wasn’t for the lack of effort, but I wasn’t able to make that adjustment today, especially with the slider. I was trying to rely on the fastball in the zone, but it’s a tough one to do if you’re just not spot on.”
The bullpen has allowed 21 of Washington’s 48 home runs, six of which have been given up by Kelley.
Baker said his team has to be patient with the process of fixing the bullpen considering teams are mostly still in contention and are unwilling to trade.
“One of the biggest downers is a blown save,” Baker said. “It carries over and also carries over to the opposition because they think they can get into the bullpen and win the game. We have to embrace that thought process and reverse that trend. … We’ve got to go back to the drawing board, trying to figure out maybe using guys in different places, guys late in the game.”
Washington wasted another strong start from Gio Gonzalez, who lasted 6 2/3 innings and threw 112 pitches. In his eight appearances this season, Gonzalez has only gone less than six innings once.
Gonzalez’s only blemish was a home run by Philadelphia first baseman Tommy Joseph in the seventh inning.
“I trust each one of those guys out of the pen,” Gonzalez said. “I want Kelley back out there again. If I can get Kelley again tonight, it would be great to have. He’s one of the guys that, no matter what we look at, he’s one of the guys we need. And we want him healthy and we want him strong. This is just turn the page.”
To get the lead, Bryce Harper tormented another Phillies pitcher.
Harper picked up where he left off the previous day, hitting a home run in the first inning after hitting a 2-run walk-off homer on Saturday. With a swing of his pink Mother’s Day bat, Harper sent a 80-mile per hour changeup from Phillies pitcher Jeremy Hellickson to right field.
Harper has hit five of his 12 home runs this season against the Phillies — two of them being walk-offs. Saturday, the Nationals and Harper announced they agreed to a 1-year, $21.65 million contract in 2018 to avoid arbitration. He finished 2-for-4 Sunday.
Trea Turner also added to the lead in the bottom of the fifth inning when he hit a 2-run homer to left field to make it 3-0. The home run was Turner’s fourth of the season.
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