The good news for the Washington Nationals? They are 55-36 and 9.5 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. Barring an epic collapse, they are playoff-bound once again. The bad news? A woefully sad bullpen has repeatedly stubbed its toe, earning a Major League-worst 5.31 ERA and .279 opponents batting average.
Playing the what-if game is less painful when the fruits of first place are being enjoyed, but it’s striking to think where the Nationals would be if competent relief pitching had been part of the equation. For fans growing accustomed to early postseason exits, a great big dollop of hope was ladled onto the plate yesterday as the club traded for Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, a pair of stellar bullpen arms from the Oakland Athletics.
Two reliable veterans — one from each side of the slab — did not come cheap. Oakland is getting Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo, two top prospects, in return. Washington is also on the hook for both pitchers’ contracts through 2018. The significant risk is worth the potential reward.
Playoff-tested Madson has posted a 2.06 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 39.1 innings. His skinny 0.788 WHIP is only slightly higher than the 0.656 Doolittle carries. The lefthanded fireballer has fanned 31 in 21.1 innings of work. Two above average relievers capable of closing and comfortable with flexibility makes the Nationals significantly better.
They still aren’t as fearsome on paper as the white-hot Los Angeles Dodgers but the move could help them notch the second-best record in the National League and avoid that particular buzzsaw until the NLCS. With the Chicago Cubs taking a middling detour on the path back to the World Series, now is the time for Washington to take a chance. It would be a shame to hamstring a deep lineup (four players hitting .316 or higher) and an All-World pitcher like Max Scherzer to a mistake-prone pen.
With all apologies to the Dodgers, whose incredible record speaks for itself, the Nationals should feel more optimistic about their World Series chances today than they did on Opening Day, thanks to the uncertainty surrounding the Cubs. Joe Maddon’s club may not be, in the words of Dennis Green, “who we thought they were.”
The Nationals addressing their biggest weakness is smart because it was done in, some way, a response to the apparent weakness of one competitor (Chicago) and strength of another (Los Angeles). If Washington is to break the dam and reach the Fall Classic, they’ll have to match arms with Kenley Jansen and the stout Dodgers’ relievers. Doolittle and Madson make emerging victorious more likely, both in perception and reality.