Nats place Papelbon on DL; questions linger on closer’s replacement

WASHINGTON — Just when you thought it was safe to save games in Washington … the Nationals place closer Jonathan Papelbon on the 15-day disabled list.

The reliever was unavailable for Monday’s game with the Chicago Cubs. Manager Dusty Baker said Papelbon was “sore, but not in the arm.”

On Tuesday, the team placed the right-hander on the DL with a right intercostal (the area between the ribs) strain.

Baker says Papelbon noticed something while stretching Sunday, before pitching the ninth inning in the team’s 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. It was the former Phillies’ first win of the season.

He had recorded saves in 16 of 18 opportunities for the Nats this year. The 35-year-old saved seven of nine games after coming to the team in a midseason trade last summer before ending his 2015 campaign, suspended for choking Bryce Harper during a September scuffle.

During spring training Papelbon, management and his teammates cleared the air and all signs make one think they’ve moved on from “The Blowout in the Dugout.”

This is an injury where the recovery demands inactivity, and the slightest tweak can push back the timetable another two weeks. So the long wait begins. The question now is: Who closes for this team?

It’s not as if the Nationals bullpen doesn’t have options. Shawn Kelley saved Monday’s win over the Chicago Cubs while striking out four over 1.2 innings pitched. Kelley used his fastball for the first four outs. The 32-year-old leads the bullpen with 13.11 strikeouts per nine innings and has the lowest WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) on the staff at 0.86. But he also has had two Tommy John surgeries in his career, so there may the some concern about overusing the right-hander.

Sammy Solis also averages more than 10 strikeouts per inning, has a WHIP of 1.00 and owns the best ERA on the team (1.42). The 27-year-old is short on Major League closing experience, as his next big league save will be his first. More of a middle-reliever/setup man at this point of his career, Solis has finished just nine of his 33 games with the Nationals over the last year and a half.

Felipe Rivero leads the team with 31 appearances this year and until last night was the only other player outside of Papelgon to record a save. He’s also allowed seven runs over his last four appearances.

Blake Treinen is third on the team behind Papelbon and Kelley in games finished (9) and boasts a decent ERA (2.30) but has a disturbing walk total (13 in 27.1 innings pitched).

Yusmeiro Petit and Oliver Perez are two veterans who have three combined career Major League saves between them.

There is always the chance that General Manager Mike Rizzo looks outside the organization for a short-term solution. San Diego closer Fernando Rodney has been rumored to be a pitcher the Nats covet, and the New York Yankees have too much talent in the back end for a team playing tag with the .500 mark.

With Papelbon on the shelf and a tricky rehabilitation road ahead, the trading deadline season may have begun a month early.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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