Plenty Of Intrigue In Nationals Bullpen

Apr. 11, 2012; Flushing, NY, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Henry Rodriguez (63) pitches during the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Nationals won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

A mix of veteran relievers and young throwers has helped keep the Nationals atop the NL East standings.

I am going to take a leap of faith and assume that most of us, especially those reading a baseball article, have once or twice in our lifetime dreamed of being a Major League Baseball player. We just dreamed about it, with no reservations. We dream of being on our favorite team and playing alongside our favorite players, usually during an all-important game. More often than not, it is Game 7 of the World Series, and more often than not we dream of being the starting pitcher.

Come on, you know you have. You've always wondered what it would be like to be in that situation. You're given the ball to win it all and you put on the performance of a career. You are hot, sweaty and your arm is tired, but you dig deep because you are only three outs away from a complete game and World Series victory for the home team. The ball is a foreign object that you roll in your hand, but it is also a part of you as you stare towards home plate to both receive your sign and intimidate the batter. It is a scene played out millions of times in millions of baseball dreams.

I too had this dream for awhile (as well as the dreams where I slug the game-winning home run or I'm the outfielder making a Willie Mays-like catch at the wall), but it wasn't until I viewed the 1989 film Major League that all that changed. Charlie Sheen's "Wildthing" walk from the bullpen has to be one of the coolest cinematic scenes of someone walking since Travolta's "Final Strut" at the end of Staying Alive. Since then I've always had the dream of making that fabled walk from the bullpen to the mound, and I bet you can't guess what team I would love to be making that walk for, especially in 2012.

If I was a relief pitcher in the Majors right now, I wouldn't want to be in any other pen than that of the Washington Nationals. True, there is lots going on all over the organization. The starting rotation is one of the hottest in baseball, and there has to be some sort of dark power at work on the offense because I have no idea where they suddenly got the power to hit in key situations and make them count. But that bullpen-- intriguing.

We all know the fan favorites like All-Star reliever Tyler Clippard and "Bad Company" closer Drew Storen. Those guys are mainstays and have their own baseball cards and if I was a pitcher I would want to work with them any day of the week. Relievers Sean Burnett and Ryan Mattheus are coming around after a few bumps. Their performances so far have been more than serviceable and when Burnett is on, he is on like a honey badger on a cobra. We also can't forget about young fireballer Cole Kimball, who is currently out until possibly July after undergoing shoulder surgery. The kid wowed Natstown last season with a lot of heat and a mean, aggressive streak.

However, the real intrigue comes from two relievers in the pen who are both in the Top 4 of Nationals ERA and who each came to the organization in different ways. Drafted by the Nats in the 12th round of the 2005 Major League Draft, Craig Stammen (1.04 ERA) joined the Nationals as a starter while reliever Henry Rodriguez (0.00 ERA) came down the pipeline from the Oakland Athletics in 2010 in a trade for Josh Willingham. Stammen was an average, lackluster starter who seemed destined to become another Collin Balestar: a forgettable pitcher who sprinkled a few memorable performances in with his inconsistency. He never truly looked like he was ever going to stick in the Nationals rotation and for all intents and purposes, he might as well had "trade bait" stamped on his head.

Then in August 2010 the organization put him in the bullpen, where Stammen seemed to finally find a place. So far in 2012, Stammen has put together an impressive portfolio, pitching in six games and giving up only seven hits and one run, while striking out 11, including back-to-back games where he struck out the side in his inning of work. He looks more confident, stronger and goes after batters. Stammen is an example of a starter-turned-reliever that is thriving from the change.

Rodriguez came to the Nationals under the radar, probably because no one truly knew who the soft spoken Venezuelan was. There were stories that Rodriguez had heat, but when he came from Oakland with outfielder Corey Brown in the Josh Willingham trade, there was little fanfare about it. My, how times have changed. Rodriguez now helps Brad Lidge with closing duties for the team in Storen's absence and he burns batters with a vicious triple-digit fastball. Seemingly gone is the lack of control that plagued him in his first season in Washington, and he has matured and ripened into a formidable reliever that fans look forward to seeing work. The guy has a pitch that goes just as fast as a Brandon Jacobs' death race through New Jersey. You sort of have to pay a guy like that notice and you sort of want to be on that guy's team.

It used to be the only guy that seemed excited to enter a game for Washington from the bullpen was Todd Coffey. Now, a hardened, young relief staff in Washington has put the league on notice and all you want to do is watch, cheer and dream.

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