Nationals, Braves both need bullpen help -- and they're not alone

WASHINGTON — It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Just ask the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals.

The opener of a three-game showdown between National League East rivals Monday night was unofficially branded as the Battle of Newcomer Southpaw Starters. But in the end, Dallas Keuchel and Patrick Corbin mattered not. Instead, what mattered most in Washington’s 6-3 win is what always seems to matter most in baseball these days: the bullpens.

Less than 48 hours before the trade deadline hits, the Nats and Braves — two contending clubs that are in the thick of the hunt for relief help — put their relief units on full display. Plot twist: Washington’s bullpen got the better of it in round one.

To be clear, neither pen was perfect, but Atlanta’s was far less so. Right-hander Chad Sobotka came on for Keuchel in the bottom of the sixth with one out and two on. After striking out Trea Turner, Sobotka walked Adam Eaton to load the bases. Then Anthony Rendon unloaded them with his third career grand slam. Even though salamis are all the rage lately (there have been nine in the past three days, tied for second most in any three-day period in MLB history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research), that’s obviously not the result that Braves manager Brian Snitker wanted.

“He got in a really bad count on Rendon,” Snitker said of Sobotka, who fell behind 2-0 on one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball before watching his third pitch sail well over the left-field wall. “Just gotta execute pitches better. Can’t come in and get behind. He was here last year, he’s been through a pennant run. He needs to be capable of doing that.”

Before Monday, Sobotka had actually been one of Atlanta’s more capable relievers, posting a 2.03 ERA over his past 13 appearances. The rest of the Braves’ bullpen? Not so much.

Closer A.J. Minter was awful early and lost the job to Luke Jackson. Jackson has been better but carries a ho-hum 1.33 WHIP and has blown seven saves, tied for most in the majors. Rookie Jacob Webb (1.39 ERA) was a revelation — until elbow problems sidelined him earlier this month. Add it all up, and Atlanta’s relievers are trending decidedly downward: After posting an MLB-best 2.43 ERA in June, they’ve put up a 5.04 in July. All of which is to say, with less than two full days left until the trade deadline, the Braves could stand to add a reliever or three. They’re not alone.

Sure, the Nationals have miraculously resurrected their season and are now in possession of the top NL wild-card spot. Yes, their bullpen hasn’t been quite as dreadful as it was earlier in the season. Still, their 6.04 ERA ranks last in the majors.

Just how thin is Washington’s pen? Last week, manager Dave Martinez used Sean Doolittle and Fernando Rodney in both ends of a doubleheader. It was the first time that Doolittle — who has spent time on the injured list in each of the past five seasons — has ever pulled double duty. As for Rodney, it wasn’t his first time, but it was his first time since turning … 42 years old. All of which is to say, with less than 48 hours left until the trade deadline, the Nats could stand to add a reliever or five. In the meantime, their pen is doing the best it can. On Monday, that was good enough.

“It’s funny how when it goes bad you hear a lot about it,” Rendon said of Washington’s relief corps, which gave up a run and two hits over three innings in helping the second-place Nats creep to within 4½ games of Atlanta. “But in big games like this, big situations where our bullpen shuts teams down, you don’t hear a lot about it. You don’t hear a lot of praise for them. A lot of kudos to them, they’re doing an amazing job.”

That’s not to say that Washington won’t be active in the final hours leading up to the trade deadline. Each of the past four years, general manager Mike Rizzo has made midsummer moves to add relief help.

As for the Braves and GM Alex Anthopoulos, although they could certainly stand to add a starting pitcher, the pen seems to be the deeper need. What’s more, with a farm system that recently ranked third, according to Baseball America’s midseason update, and boasts six top-100 prospects, Atlanta has the collateral to land a brand-name back-end arm like Felipe Vazquez, Edwin Diaz or Kirby Yates, should they so choose. In contrast, the Nationals’ depleted prospect pipeline (ranked 24th in batting average) means they’ll probably have to aim for second-tier arms, at best.

So far, both clubs have been content to watch as other teams, such as the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins, have gotten the reliever ball rolling. But just because the A’s and Twins were first to the market doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win the battle of the bullpen bolstering.

After all, it’s not how you start, but how you finish.

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