'Pen shows major improvement vs. Padres

'Pen shows major improvement vs. Padres

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have fretted about their bullpen at times this season. The group entered Sunday with the worst ERA in the Major Leagues, and despite receiving support from strong starting pitching and perhaps the league's best offense, the relievers have surrendered multiple leads.

But in the Nationals' 5-3 loss to the Padres on Sunday, the bullpen put together a strong performance, throwing five scoreless innings. Washington couldn't take advantage of the rare occasion, though. Starter Joe Ross allowed five runs in four innings and the Nationals went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position to suffer their lone loss of the series.

"[The relievers] did their job," acting manager Chris Speier said. "It's one of those things where we had some opportunities to score some runs, and we left some men on base early. Those are opportunities that we need to take advantage of."

The Nationals have blown nine saves this season -- tied for the most in the National League. The team has switched between three closers, as just two Washington relievers who have played at least two games hold an ERA below four. Since Blake Treinen, who holds a 6.85 ERA in 23 contests, lost his season-opening closer job, Koda Glover has taken over, sealing three victories during Washington's six-game homestand this week.

Glover fans Hedges for the win

The Nationals, though, hadn't had to depend on their bullpen much this week. In their past six outings entering Sunday, Washington's starters pitched an average of 7 1/3 innings and held a 1.44 ERA. But Ross broke that trend by failing to put together strong consecutive starts, allowing 12 hits and putting his team in a hole when he exited in the fifth. In similar situations this season, the Nationals' relievers have allowed opponents to take a commanding lead.

But coming into the fifth with no outs and a runner on first, Jacob Turner, who holds a 4.01 ERA, escaped the frame and allowed just one hit in two innings. Treinen took over in the seventh and gave up one hit in two frames before Enny Romero didn't surrender a hit in the ninth to improve his ERA to 5.32.

"It's kind of what we expect to do," Treinen said. "We all expect each other to go out there and throw up zeros."

It was also significant that the relievers kept their pitch counts down, helping them stay fresh for the team's upcoming nine-game California road trip.

"There were times where we were kind of looking and thinking, 'How much more can [Ross] give us?'" Speier said. "He kept giving us that extra, which was big for us. We got a long stretch here, and the last thing we want to do is blow up our bullpen."

Usually, the Nationals make up for their bullpen's struggles with their offense, which leads the Majors in almost every offensive category.

But they couldn't capitalize with four regular starters -- Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth and Matt Wieters -- out of the lineup. They failed to drive in runners early, and San Diego shifted between four relievers to hold the Nationals without a hit after the fifth. Still, the Nationals' most glaring issue showed promise.

"They got off to a good start, and we just played catch-up the rest of the day," said Brian Goodwin, who went 2-for-4. "We really hit the ball well, we just didn't have the results to show for it. Ultimately, we just ran out of time at the end."

Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington, D.C., who covered the Nationals on Sunday. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.