Bullpen could determine Nats' playoff fate

Bullpen could determine Nats' playoff fate

WASHINGTON -- As postseason baseball continues to be revolutionized during the past few years, the leashes on starting pitchers have become shorter. They are not lasting as deep into games as a whole as they have in years past, with managers electing to go to their bullpen instead of letting a starter navigate his way through the third time through the order.

NLDS Game 1: Tonight, 7:30 p.m. ET on TBS

Short postseason starts become an inevitability, perhaps even for the Nationals, a team built on the strength of its starting pitching. Yes, the Nats are counting on Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to be exceptions, but the chances are Washington is going to have to navigate a short start into a victory.

Game Date Matchup TV/Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 6 CHC 3, WSH 0 WATCH
Gm 2 Oct. 7 WSH 6, CHC 3 WATCH
Gm 3 Oct. 9 CHC 2, WSH 1 WATCH
Gm 4 Oct. 11 WSH 5, CHC 0 WATCH
Gm 5 Oct. 12 CHC 9, WSH 8 WATCH

That makes the Nationals' middle relievers an X-factor this postseason. Washington has perhaps the best starting pitching among playoff teams, a deep lineup and the back end of its bullpen has been lights-out since the club acquired three relievers -- Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle -- before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

The Nationals' new big three has been reliable, but what they can expect from the rest of their relief core, which will likely include right-hander Matt Albers and left-handers Oliver Perez and Sammy Solis, could determine their postseason fate.

Albers is in the midst of the best season of his 12-year Major League career, with a career-low 1.66 ERA to go along with career-bests in WHIP (0.86) and strikeouts-to-walk ratio (3.59). Neither he or Perez will blow hitters away with their velocity, but both veterans have been solid all season, as Perez carries an ERA+ of 114 with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings as a lefty specialist.

Solis' emergence toward the end of the season has been huge for Washington. Solis has the velocity and movement to rival anyone on the Nationals' staff, and he can be a useful weapon in the middle of the game considering his career splits are good against both righties and lefties. He did not allow a run in 10 consecutive appearances from Aug. 27 to Sept. 27 and he owned a 1.29 ERA in 15 games dating back to Aug. 13.

If the Nationals can receive reliable performances from the three relievers they have had in the organization all season to partner with the relievers they acquired in trades, add their bullpen as another strength of this team loaded with strengths. However, if shaky middle relief forces manager Dusty Baker to extend his starters beyond their limit, it could be the difference between another early postseason exit or a deep playoff run.

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.