WASHINGTON (AP) Ryan Madson doesn't pay attention to baseball, so when he couldn't tune out hearing how bad the Nationals' bullpen was he knew it must be a problem with the relief corps.
Washington had the worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 5.34 and had blown 22 of 36 save opportunities. With the rest of the pieces in place in the lineup and rotation to be a World Series contender, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Madson and left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle from Oakland on July 16 and All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler from Minnesota on July 31 to shore up the most important part of the bullpen and make games shorter.
So far it has worked almost perfectly. With Kintzler pitching the seventh, Madson the eighth and Doolittle the ninth, the trio has a 1.29 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 28 innings.
Invoking Yogi Berra's saying that, ''If you ain't got a bullpen, you ain't got nothing,''' manager Dusty Baker referred to the sign he used to hang in his office that reads: ''Nothing's better than good friends and a good bullpen.'' He has one now.
''You feel a lot more comfortable because you don't necessarily have to mix and match left-right, left-right and run out of your guys in the bullpen,'' Baker said. ''You feel a whole lot more comfortable. On the real good teams I've been on, we had that.''
The Nationals have a solid ballclub, with reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer as the ace, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez as strong second and third starters and a powerful lineup that features 2015 MVP Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. The strength of that core and organizational depth amid injuries allowed Washington to build a significant lead in the weak NL East, but the woeful bullpen performance threatened to sink any hopes of a long postseason run.
Righty Matt Albers, who has revitalized his career with a 2.03 ERA, and lefty Oliver Perez are still trustworthy relievers, but the Nationals could also lean on Kintzler-Madson-Doolittle for just about every important inning in October. The relievers say their transition, together, has been seamless in part because Baker has used them in consistent roles and also because they felt appreciated and welcome in the clubhouse.
Madson and Doolittle left last-place Oakland, and Minnesota was seven games back at the time of the trade. Pitching in meaningful games has also gone a long way.
''You're trying to prove yourself to a new team every time out, so you really stay focused,'' Kintzler said. ''Every game means something. We're trying to win a division and get ready for the playoffs. For me coming in, obviously I need to prove myself to them so they keep putting me in the role.''
So far Doolittle, who converted three of four save chances this season for the Athletics, has filled the closer's role, even though Baker hasn't anointed him as the closer. Kintzler converted 28 of his 32 save chances with the Twins but has been OK with not pitching in the ninth since going to Washington.
A fan of round-number milestones, Baker wants to get Kintzler two more saves for 30 on the season but isn't about to juggle his late-game rotation while things are going smoothly.
''You've got three All-Star closers,'' Baker said. ''You've got to settle on somebody. But the roles couldn't be interchangeable. ... I don't like to anticipate problems before there's problems.''
The Nationals' biggest problem right now is what Rizzo called a "significant" bone bruise in Harper's left knee. The bullpen has gone from a weakness to a strength, and Madson is glad he gets to ''help plug a little leak for a great ship.''
''Since coming here, definitely the excitement of a new team, of important games, games that matter and an important role to fill for a good team,'' Madson said. ''The emotions were different, heightened awareness, more meaningful. That translates into putting even a little more focus on everything.''
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