Questions loom after Papelbon's early hook

Questions loom after Papelbon's early hook

SAN FRANCISCO -- As the rest of his teammates emerged from the showers and dressed around him, Jonathan Papelbon sat at his locker and stared in silence on Thursday night. He had just been pulled three batters into the ninth inning, unable to lock down the save despite being given a three-run lead.

But the ninth inning has rarely gone smoothly for the Nationals lately, and manger Dusty Baker did not want to risk another loss. He took note of Papelbon's diminished velocity and command as he put runners on first and second with one out, and had seen enough.

"I'm sure [Papelbon] felt badly, but I had to do what I had to do to win the ballgame," Baker said after the Nats hung on for a 4-2 victory over the Giants.

And Washington is still actively looking for bullpen help before Monday's non-waiver Drade deadline. Perhaps this makes them more likely to trade for Yankees left-hander Andrew Miller, Royals right-hander Wade Davis or White Sox closer David Robertson. One thing the past few games has made clear, the Nationals might have to do something soon if they want to reach the lofty goals they set for themselves this season.

Papelbon entered the ninth with his fastball hovering around 88-89 mph, a tick or two slower than his normal velocity this season, which was already a career low. He retired the first batter, Brandon Crawford, but then allowed a single to Brandon Belt. Papelbon issued a walk to the next batter, Mac Williamson, and that bought the tying run to the plate.

Kelley records the save

That's when Baker replaced Papelbon with left-hander Oliver Perez to face a right-handed pinch-hitter. The combination of Perez and Shawn Kelley sealed the win.

"The object is to win the game," Papelbon said. "Do what you can to win the game."

This was the latest in a tough stretch for the Nationals' closer. He surrendered four runs in the ninth inning of a tied game on Sunday against the Padres. He did not record an out in the ninth inning on Tuesday night during a blown save in Cleveland as he allowed three runs (two earned) on two walks. His ERA has skyrocketed from 2.56 at the start of Sunday's game to 4.41.

Papelbon initially dismissed his previous two outings as just a bad pair of appearances. And even after Thursday's game, he was unwilling to call it anything but a few bad outings.

However, Papelbon's velocity has been down all season, at 91.75 mph, and he rarely misses bats. So he has to get by on command, which has also been shaky of late. He has issued four walks in his last three appearances.

Baker said after the game it was too early to say how the team will move forward with Papelbon, but he added, "We certainly got to figure something out here."

That's a far cry from a vote of confidence for Papelbon to remain as the Nationals' closer.

Kelley recorded the final out Thursday for his fifth save of the season, and at times has looked like the team's most effective relief pitcher. He has 59 strikeouts and just seven walks in 38 innings this season. If the club deems a change must be made, Kelley could serve as the replacement.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.