Wednesday, September 15, 2010, 5:04 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
ATLANTA -- They've been the one constant in an otherwise tumultuous year for the Washington Nationals. Their starting rotation has been great at times, disastrous at others. Their lineup has produced in bunches for a week, then gone ice cold for two weeks. Their defense has been mostly atrocious, though it's gotten better over the course of six months.
But all along, the Nationals have boasted a deep and reliable bullpen, a unit that has earned the trust and confidence of everyone else in uniform.
"It's awesome," starter John Lannan said. "If you go six or seven innings, if you have the lead, you've got a good shot of winning the ballgame. These guys have been outstanding all year. I'm just really impressed with the way they've done such a great job."
Washington's bullpen was back in top form again Wednesday afternoon at Turner Field. Justin Maxwell's early grand slam and Lannan's six solid innings may have set the tone, but three scoreless innings of relief from Joel Peralta, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen sealed the deal and gave the Nationals a 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves.Just like that, a Nationals club that was chewed out by its manager Sunday for lack of effort and then the following night struck out 15 times in losing its sixth straight game bounced back to beat the Braves twice and deal the NL East contenders a serious blow to their title hopes.
"That's all we've got right now over the last month," Burnett said, "trying to spoil other people's seasons."
The Nationals marched into Atlanta and took two of three against the club with baseball's best home record (52-21 through Monday) thanks to Livan Hernandez's eight shutout innings Tuesday night and then a well-rounded performance Wednesday afternoon that included Maxwell's second-inning blast off rookie Mike Minor.
Amazingly, it was Maxwell's third grand slam in only 194 career at-bats. He's come up to bat with the bases loaded four times in the major leagues, and he's homered three times.
"He's not afraid of the situation, that's for sure," manager Jim Riggleman said.
Owner of a .139 batting average this season and a .204 average in parts of three big-league seasons, Maxwell has struggled to hit with any consistency at this level. But he does seem to have a knack for coming through in some big spots. His first grand slam was also his first career homer (in September 2007). His second was a walk-off slam against New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez in the Nationals' 2009 home finale. And his third blast set the stage for an impressive win over the contending Braves.
"I just try not to think about it when you have those situations," the former University of Maryland outfielder said. "You just try to put together a good at-bat for the team. I know we had one out in that situation. I was just trying to put the ball in play, and it worked out that I got a pitch over the plate."
Handed a 4-0 lead on Maxwell's slam, Lannan gave two of the runs back over his six innings, then turned matters over to his rock-solid bullpen. Peralta, Burnett and Storen combined to retire eight of the 10 batters they faced, with Burnett shining brightest of all.
The left-hander entered in the seventh with one out and a man on third, facing the heart of Atlanta's lineup. But he calmly got Rookie of the Year candidate Jason Heyward to break his bat and line out to second, then got All-Star Martin Prado to strike out at a nasty 2-2 slider. Another strikeout of Matt Diaz, followed by a double-play grounder off Alex Gonzalez's bat ended the eighth inning and finished off Burnett's impressive, five-out appearance.
Burnett now owns a 2.45 ERA in 66 appearances. He's also stranded 31 of 43 inherited runners.
"He's been real good," Riggleman said. "And he's just getting better and better."
Indeed, the 27-year-old has taken a significant step this season, emerging as more than a left-handed specialist, instead earning his manager's trust to retire multiple batters from both sides of the plate over multiple innings.
"I don't want to say it's embarrassing, but when you have that lefty specialist tag (and you were once a starter) it's kind of awkward to have that title," Burnett said. "That was a big thing in the offseason. I wanted to get my changeup back so I could face right-handers more often. Riggleman's done a great job of letting me pitch out of situations, not bringing a righty in so I can get out of trouble on my own. It only helps build confidence."
Around the league, few may notice Burnett. Inside the Nationals' clubhouse, his sustained performance is greatly appreciated.
"He's not getting nearly the credit that he should," Storen said. "He's been a guy that's been a staple for our bullpen. A lot of times, honestly, it's kind of boring watching him pitch because he just does well every time."
Burnett hasn't been alone in mowing down the opposition. For the season, Washington's bullpen owns a 3.41 ERA. Over the last 12 games, that unit has posted an 0.72 ERA, striking out 40 while walking only nine.
On Wednesday, it all set the stage for Storen to finish things off and notch his fourth save in five tries. Upset with himself earlier in the week after putting himself in several jams by overthrowing, he made things easy this time, retiring the side to seal the Nationals' 4-2 victory.
"It was refreshing," Storen said. "I took a new approach. I didn't try to strike everybody out. ... I'm just trying to throw good pitches, instead of trying to throw the best pitch ever."
Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at email@example.com.