Nationals’ loss to Pirates highlights bullpen’s problems without Sean Doolittle

April 14, 2019

This time, the Nationals’ clubhouse was clean.

Occasionally after games, shreds of cabbage can be found on the floor residue from a relay race that involves smashing the vegetable at the end. The Nationals first introduced the activity in spring training, and have carried it into the regular season.

But the Nationals were in no mood for celebration Sunday not after a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a game in which the team’s bullpen was, again, the difference.

With two out in the top of the ninth, Nationals reliever Wander Suero gave up an RBI ground-rule double to Pirates outfielder Jason Martin.

Typically in the ninth, the Nationals would look to closer Sean Doolittle to pitch, but manager Dave Martinez said he wanted to stay with the “hot hand” in Suero.

Doolittle, however, wasn’t really an option given the two-time All-Star had thrown a combined 35 pitches in back-to-back appearances on Friday and Saturday.

Sunday’s loss was the latest evidence the Nationals (7-7) don’t have reliable relievers beyond their closer.

“I liked the way he’s been throwing, and he threw the ball well,” Martinez said of Suero. “He had 0-2 to 4-2, and then he had 0-2 on Martin and just couldn’t bury the last pitch. But he’s been pitching well, but he had the hot hand and I felt like he could get lefties and righties out.”

Suero hadn’t allowed a run since April 2, dating back five appearances.

On Saturday, the 27-year-old earned his first win of the season by throwing seven strikes on 11 pitches to get the Nationals out of the eighth inning.

Still, Suero couldn’t get the job done Sunday when it mattered. He walked Josh Bell (2-of-3, 2 RBI), despite getting the first baseman to an 0-2 count. Then Colin Moran grounded out, though Bell was able to advance to second base.

With the pressure on, Suero struck out Melky Cabrera only to give up the game-losing run to Martin. Specifically, on Martin’s ground-rule double, Suero was caught on a curveball that went inside, slightly off where he intended.

“I was trying to locate it a little differently,” Suero said through a team translator. “I was trying to get it on the dirt for him to chase it. Unfortunately, I hung it just a little bit and he made good contact.”

Washington’s bullpen problems have been well documented to this point. Entering Sunday’s game, it ranked dead-last in the majors with a 7.71 ERA.

Against the Pirates, the Nationals got enough run support to make up for their pitching miscues early. Starter Max Scherzer, who was coming off two days extra rest because of a bone bruise on his leg, was uncharacteristically off to begin the game allowing three runs in three innings. But the game was tied at 3 after the third, thanks to runs from Howie Kendrick (2-of-5), Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.

Even in the ninth, Washington had a chance for another walk-off. They had the bases loaded, only for Kendrick and Rendon to get out.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating because ... the offense did a great job of battling against their guys today,” Scherzer said. “We had opportunities to score and we just weren’t able to get it done.”