3. Washington Nationals (26–17, plus-41, LT: 4)
Dusty Baker had witnessed this scene before. On Sunday, his starter (in this case Stephen Strasburg) pitched well but ran out of gas, firing 118 pitches in 7 2/3 innings. Now, Baker needed to find a reliever who could protect a one-run lead, with a runner in scoring position and the opponent’s number-three hitter (in this case veteran pesky bat Nick Markakis) striding to the plate. The Nats bullpen had already let Baker down numerous times before: With both wannabe closers and setup men melting down, Washington’s bullpen had already blown eight saves this year, more than all but six other teams.
The Nationals manager spun his bullpen wheel ... and landed on Koda Glover. The 24-year-old right-hander was seeing high-leverage work in the majors for the first time this year, after a rough 2016 debut in which he posted a 5.03 ERA. He’d already saved two games while acting as co-closer with Shawn Kelley, the veteran righty who’d lost Baker’s trust by allowing six homers this year, not to mention being a health risk with two Tommy John surgeries in his rearview mirror. Managers can talk all they want about reliever versatility, about mixing and matching bullpen roles. But few things make a manager look smarter than a lights-out firebreather who can jog in for the ninth inning and shut the game down.
After a brief DL stint caused by a hip injury, followed by four days of inactivity since his last outing, here was Glover’s chance to shine on day five. Markakis battled Glover for five pitches, staying alive on a 1–2 count. Then on pitch number six, Glover reared back and fired straight gas—97 mph, up in the zone. Swing and a miss, strike three. Glover caught a break in the ninth, when a sharp line drive by Matt Adams landed right in Ryan Zimmerman’s glove, triggering an easy double play that erased a leadoff single by Matt Kemp. One Kurt Suzuki popout later, Glover had done it—four batters up, four batters down, and a spectacularly welcome save for a team that had dropped four straight games to the Braves and Pirates.
The Nats might still shop for a more established shutdown closer to address the team’s lack of bullpen depth, arguably the only weakness on what might otherwise be the best team in the National League. But Washington already has a young right-hander with high-90s heat and a sharp slider who might ably fill the closer role if given a clean shot at it. If Glover goes on to save 30 more games this year, Sunday afternoon will be the moment he started to earn real trust, amid a bullpen that had done a great job of breaking that trust for the first quarter of the season.