Washington Nationals Reaction: It’s Time for the Nats to Find a Closer

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Jun 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker (R) talks to general manager Mike Rizzo before the game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker (R) talks to general manager Mike Rizzo before the game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Washington Nationals’ bullpen has struggled since closer Jonathan Papelbon hit the Disabled List, but is simply waiting for his return enough to turn this group around?

The Nationals (43-28) enter play on Tuesday five and a half games up on the New York Mets in the NL East. They sport the second highest run differential in the Senior Circuit, have made the fewest errors in baseball, and trot out the reigning MVP on a regular basis. The Nats are a good team, perhaps one of the toughest foes in the majors, but they have a weakness.

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Could this weakness keep Washington out of the playoffs? Possibly, but probably not.

Over a 162-game season, one weakness can be covered up and ignored. However, come October, that weakness will very often prove to be the Achilles heel for a lot of very talented teams. Take a look at the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals from a year ago, who dominated the regular season only to see their mediocre offense crumble at the hands of the Cubs in the Division Series.

Last night, the Nats fell behind 3-0, but scraped a run across in the top of the seventh and looked poised to strike again against the Dodger bullpen. It was up to the Nats’ relievers to keep the offense in the game with a shutdown inning and get the offense back in the dugout. Instead, Oliver Perez gave up a run in his third straight appearance, and the Nats’ bats went down quietly.

For the Nationals, this weakness is the bullpen. It is not as drastic a problem like it was a year ago, but simply put, Washington lacks a dominant arm capable of shutting down teams for the last three outs. Without a set closer, this bullpen has been in complete disarray as players have struggled to find their roles. The Nats have never had a true, dominant closer since the team moved to D.C. Chad Cordero locked down 47 saves in 2005, but that takes the cake for the best season by a ninth-inning guy in the team’s short history.

When he comes back from the DL, Papelbon will presumably take over the closer role once again, but why should he? The 35-year old has a modest 3.28 ERA, and his 6.9 K/9 is one of the lowest marks on the team. While the team could promote the impressive Shawn Kelley to the role, a team in the middle of a pennant race should explore the trade market for a more experienced arm.

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The Nats have been connected to the Yankees’ top relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller in numerous reports. Mark Melancon is a free agent after this season and the Pirates are scuffling. Fernando Rodney has not allowed an earned run to cross the plate this season and is pitching for the last place Padres. There are plenty of options out there for Mike Rizzo and Co. to explore, the front office just needs to pull the trigger.

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