May 15

Could the Nats have the bullpen answer on their roster?

Sunday was another torturous day for Nationals fans as they watched the team’s erratic late-inning relief corps blow leads in both ends of a split doubleheader, wasting fine performances from starters Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer.

Only Michael A. Taylor’s eighth-inning homer—a shot that glanced off the left-field foul pole—and Matt Albers’ second appearance of the day saved the Nats from a sweep at the hands of a Phillies team they entered the day leading by nine games in the National League East.

The bullpen has been a known weakness since lefty Blake Treinen lasted barely a week in the loser role, and then new co-closers Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover each went down with injuries. No one emerged from the bullpen during their absence. Both returned to action and were effective in Saturday’ night’s 6-4 win over Philadelphia, but neither had anything in Sunday’s first game against the Phillies and were unavailable in the nightcap after working back-to-back games.

There have been calls for general manager Mike Rizzo to trade for bullpen help, possibly mortgaging the future of a club with key players possibly leaving after next season. But what if the answer to the bullpen woes is still on the Nats 25-man roster? What if another member of the team could step forward and become a reliable closer, allowing pitchers like Kelley and Glover to settle into more familiar back-end bullpen roles.

Here’s an idea so crazy it might work: Max Scherzer. It would take a mighty sacrifice on his part, possibly giving up a second-straight Cy Young Award and a chance to add to his collection of no-hitters. But what if it helped the Nats complete what could be a special season. Such a move is not unheard of, and has worked out well in the past.

Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz was one of the Atlanta Braves feared trio of future Hall-of-Fame starters in the 1990s, when they won 14 NL East title in 15 years, five pennants and a World Series. In 2001, after recovering from Tommy John surgery, Smoltz voluntarily moved into the bullpen in when closer John Rocker was traded.

The next three-plus seasons only cemented Smoltz’ bona fides for Cooperstown. In 2001, in 36 appearances, he logged 10 saves and three more in an NLDS win over Houston. In 2002, his first full season as closer, Smoltz set the NL record with 55 saves, and followed with seasons of 45 with a 1.12 ERA and 44 with a 2.76 ERA. He returned to the rotation, pitching another four seasons for the Braves.

Last season’s NLDS loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers is another example. Who emerged from the bullpen to secure the last two outs of Game 5 to close out the Series? Clayton Kershaw, who had thrown 110 pitches the day before.

Scherzer is often at his best early in games, when his fastball is at its liveliest. He has the toughness for the closer’s job, too. On Sunday night he took a vicious line drive off his left knee in the fourth inning, but stayed in the game, and came back in the fifth to strike out the side on nine pitches, an immaculate inning.

The Nats would have to solidify their fifth-starter position, and injuries to any of the other starters could be difficult to overcome. But Max Scherzer closing out games for the Nats this season could be what they need to wrap up another NL East title and maybe get past their previous NLDS failures.