To a Washington Nationals fan base that has been shellshocked by a seemingly endless string of late-game meltdowns, it was simply another fine mess a reliever had gotten them into.
That it was created by one of the two relievers just acquired from Oakland who are supposed to prevent these sticky situations made it all the more painful to watch.
Veteran right-hander Ryan Madson, making his Nationals debut after Sunday’s trade from the Athletics, breezed through the eighth inning against the Angels on Tuesday night, inducing a pair of fly-ball outs and striking out Martin Maldonado, who had homered in the sixth, to protect a one-run lead.
Washington tacked on an insurance run on an Adam Lind homer for a 4-2 lead in the ninth. On came Sean Doolittle, the hard-throwing left-hander who was traded with Madson for reliever Blake Treinen and two minor leaguers, for the bottom of the ninth.
His adrenaline pumping too hard and his 95-mph fastballs sailing above the zone, Doolittle walked C.J. Cron on four pitches. Ben Revere grounded into a fielder’s choice. Kole Calhoun doubled to right field, snapping Doolittle’s string of retiring all 24 left-handed batters he had faced this season.
Up stepped Mike Trout, who many people consider to be the best player in baseball. There were runners on second and third and one out. On deck was slugger Albert Pujols, with Yunel Escobar to follow.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said afterward, “but that’s how baseball goes.”
Here’s how it went Tuesday night: Baker shunned conventional strategy and had Doolittle pitch to Trout, who was jammed on a first-pitch fastball and grounded out to shortstop, scoring a run.
“I promise they won’t all be like that,” Doolittle said with a grin. “I would have loved to have struck out the side, but hopefully they saw what I was able to do — gather myself and make a couple of really good pitches in a pressure situation.”
The Nationals could do without the drama, but this was the kind of clutch ninth-inning performance they have not gotten enough of, and what they’ll need if they are to have any chance of winning a playoff series against the powerful Dodgers, who eliminated them in a thrilling five-game division series last October.
Sunday’s trade brought a pair of experienced high-leverage relievers with closing and setup experience. Washington probably needs at least one more bullpen arm — preferably one capable of closing — to compete with the Dodgers, but it’s a start.
“It sets your mind at ease a little bit,” said Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who is on the disabled list because of a bruise in his left foot. “You get some guys who have been there, who have been in the fire, been battle-tested. You can lean on those guys, and it takes the pressure off everyone else.”
Madson, 36, missed all of 2012 to 2014 because of elbow injuries before resurfacing as a shut-down reliever for the World Series-champion Kansas City Royals in 2015. He posted a 3.03 earned-run average in 1 1/2 seasons with the A’s, striking out 88 and walking 26 over 104 innings in 103 games.
In the second year of a three-year, $22-million deal, Madson, who features a 95-mph two-seam sinking fastball and curve, converted 31 of 41 save opportunities for Oakland and had a 2.06 ERA and 0.79 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) in 40 games this season.
“It feels good to have a chance to win again,” said Madson, who has 42 career post-season appearances and pitched on Philadelphia’s 2008 championship team. “I’m getting up there. I don’t know how many bullets are left, how many more chances I’m gonna have, so to get this opportunity … what a gift.”
Doolittle, 30, closed for an A’s wild-card team in 2014. He’s been slowed by shoulder injuries for the past two seasons but had a 3.38 ERA and 0.66 WHIP in 23 games this season for Oakland.
He features a 95-mph fastball and an improving slider, and is signed through 2018 with reasonably priced team options for 2019 ($6 million) and 2020 ($6.5 million).
While a stout rotation led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez entered Tuesday with the league’s third-best ERA (3.54), second-best opponents average (.230) and most strikeouts (598), the bullpen might have qualified for FEMA assistance.
Washington relievers entered Tuesday with a major league-worst 5.27 ERA, an NL-worst .278 opponents average, 1.46 WHIP and 236 strikeouts. They had 14 blown saves in 36 opportunities.
The Nationals began the season with the hard-throwing Treinen as closer. He lost his ninth-inning job, then a late-inning role, and had a 5.73 ERA in 37 games by the time he was traded.
Washington tried Shawn Kelley (7.00 ERA in 22 games) and Koda Glover (5.12 ERA in 23 games) as closers before turning to veteran Matt Albers, who had 460 major league appearances before recording his first save this season.
Albers, with a 1.91 ERA in 34 games, has been among the team’s most reliable relievers. Joe Blanton, who shined in a setup role for the Dodgers last season, has a 6.75 ERA in 28 games but has not allowed an earned run in 7 1/3 innings of his last nine games.
“We just couldn’t get a rhythm or a role system or any kind of synergy in the bullpen, so they struggled,” Rizzo said. “It wasn’t a lack of effort or preparation. They just weren’t performing. We felt like we had to acquire some guys.”
Baker will use matchups to determine who pitches the eighth and ninth inning, and age and injury histories will prevent Madson and Doolittle from pitching too often on back-to-back days. But the new relievers are clearly upgrades over what Washington had in its bullpen.
“Madson threw the ball excellent, and Doolittle closed the door,” Baker said, adding that Doolittle “seems like a pretty cool customer. He’s not easily rattled. He’s been in that situation before, and he did his job.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna