It’s a good thing for the Nationals that they have as substantial a lead as they do in the National League East, because they need every bit of breathing room they can get. On Thursday, Washington suffered insult and injury, as its beleaguered bullpen blew yet another lead in a 5–4 loss to the Cubs—one that shortstop Trea Turner was forced to leave with what turned out to be a broken right wrist that will sideline him indefinitely. Yet while the loss of Turner seems to be the bigger problem on the surface, the bullpen’s latest meltdown is far more vexing.
Turner’s injury was the first bit of bad luck on the day. Batting with two on and one out in the seventh, the 24-year-old shortstop took a Pedro Strop fastball off the hands. Though he was able to stay in the game, he came out in the ninth inning for Stephen Drew in a double switch; his injury turned up in a postgame X-ray. The team hasn’t announced any timetable for his return, but an absence of at least six-to-eight weeks seems likely.
The injury is poorly timed for Turner, who had missed a big chunk of the early part of the season with a hamstring injury and struggled to regain his form upon his return but had found his stroke in June, hitting .298/.370/.404 on the month entering Thursday’s action. More importantly, he remained a dynamic presence on the bases, stealing 33 bags in 37 tries—including four on Tuesday night against Chicago in a game that literally cost catcher Miguel Montero his job.
The bad news didn’t end with Turner, though, as the relief corps that has provided anything but struck yet again in the nation’s capitol. Handed a 4–2 lead going into the ninth, righty Blake Treinen got Addison Russell to strike out to start the frame, then plunked Jeimer Candelario. A ground ball from pinch-hitter Victor Caratini should have been a game-ending double play, but with the shift on, it was only a force at second, keeping the Cubs alive.
From there, everything fell apart. Caratini took second on defensive indifference and then moved to third on a single by Javy Baez. With two on and one out, Tommy La Stella punched a single into left to drive in a run and cut the Nationals’ lead to one. That advantage disappeared two pitches later, when Jon Jay took a Treinen fastball and laced it into centerfield for a two-run double. Washington was unable to answer in the bottom of the frame, handing the team its sixth loss this season in a game in which it entered the ninth with a lead.
But for as tough as things will be without Turner’s presence atop the lineup, on the bases and at a premium defensive position—and for as ill-equipped as Drew and Wilmer Difo are to replace him for the extended period of time he’ll be out—the Nationals can afford that loss. The lineup remains strong even without Turner, though him going on the shelf alongside Adam Eaton (who blew out his knee back in May) robs the Nationals of their two best leadoff options (and their two best base stealers). And despite falling to Chicago, Washington remains 9 ½ games up on Atlanta for first place in the division, and the rebuilding Braves are unlikely to close that gap much. The same goes for the third-place Mets, who have been ruined by injuries and have a rotation that consists of Jacob deGrom and not much else. Beyond them lie the mediocre Marlins and one of the worst Phillies teams in that franchise’s long and sad existence. Time and distance are on the Nationals’ side.
The same can’t be said of the bullpen, which is screaming for an immediate solution. Treinen, who began the year as the team’s closer, now has a 6.11 ERA in 35 1/3 innings. Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley, who were fallback options, are both on the DL; the former seems a long shot to contribute in the near future. Beyond that lies veteran flotsam in the form of Matt Albers, Joe Blanton and busted top prospect Jacob Turner, who have all come up short as high-leverage options. Just about the only trustworthy reliever Dusty Baker has is Enny Romero, who has struck out 41 in 37 2/3 innings, but he’s eminently hittable despite his power fastball.
So far, all the Nationals have been able to do to bolster that group is trawl the depths of the league and see if anything useful can be pulled from the dregs. Earlier this week, Washington signed 35-year-old Francisco Rodriguez—last seen getting battered like a piñata for the Tigers to the tune of a 7.82 ERA and a whopping nine home runs in 25 1/3 innings before mercifully earning his release—to a minor league deal. On Thursday, the club added veteran righty Kevin Jepsen, who posted a 5.98 ERA for two teams last season and hasn’t thrown a pitch all year. Neither is likely to make any kind of positive difference.
These kinds of moves may result in some lightning being caught in a bottle, but trying to build a bullpen from scraps and overlooked pieces is what got the Nationals into this mess in the first place. What’s truly worrisome, though, is how hard it will be for them to fix things. It’s easy enough to go out and acquire a top-flight reliever: The trade market will have plenty of options. But this isn’t a case like the 2016 Cubs when they picked up Aroldis Chapman—one piece to take them over the top. The Nationals need bulk reinforcements: a closer, a trusted setup man, enough depth to relieve some of the pressure for a rotation that has had to throw more innings than any in baseball (490 2/3 before Thursday). Acquiring all of that without mortgaging the future—or even finding all those pieces in the first place—will be a Herculean task. (And that's to say nothing of the ownership group and its perpetually tightened purse strings.)
Nonetheless, the team has to do something. Players have already begun carping to the local media about the strain of playing in front of a bullpen that can’t be trusted with any lead, no matter how big. “We feel like we have to win the game three times,” one anonymous National told the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga earlier this month. No matter how big a division lead and no matter how inept the rest of the NL East is, no team can survive that kind of tension and unhappiness, or the stress of fearing that, every single night, the worst is going to happen when the starter comes out. And things will only get worse when the competition gets tougher or tighter, especially for a team that will be desperate to advance past the first round of the postseason for the first time in Nationals franchise history.
The Nationals had a chance to avoid this issue back in the off-season, when Chapman and Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon and Greg Holland were all available as free agents (to say nothing of Wade Davis or David Robertson, dangled in trades). They didn’t, and now they’re paying the price. Turner’s injury hurts, and the Nationals will feel it. But that pain won’t last. The bullpen, as of right now, carries no such promise.