NEW YORK -- Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen hung out at the MLB Fan Cave on Monday before the Nationals got their seven-game trip under way at Citi Field, and their presence said as much about the 2012 Major League Baseball season so far as the "GAMES REMAINING" readout that would drop into triple digits hours later.
The Nationals have either led the National League East or shared the top spot for 99 of the season's 109 days -- second among division leaders only to the Rangers' 106 days on top -- and much of the pitching attention over that time has gone to starters like Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. But this quartet of Nationals relievers is a crucial reason the club leads the NL in just about every key team pitching statistic, such as ERA and WHIP, opponents-against average, fewest hits and home runs allowed.
Those four alone combine for a 9-6 record, 2.36 ERA (44 earned runs), 45 holds, 18 saves, 167 2/3 innings, 132 hits and 11 homers allowed. Those are nice numbers to ponder for a club that is now in the process of re-integrating Drew Storen, who had spent the first 89 games recovering from surgery to remove a bone chip in his right elbow.
"I think it's exciting to see the change the organization has made over the last couple of years, to bring some excitement to Washington," Burnett said. "The fans are loving it. It's fun for us, too. Winning is much more fun than losing. We're having a good time. We've got a lot of baseball left to play, but we're looking forward to it and the fan support has been great."
Fans around MLB are going to know these relievers better in the months to come, as the postseason nears. It is no coincidence that these four were at the MLB off-field hub at Fourth Street and Broadway, where they spent an hour taping scenes in an upcoming video for MLBFanCave.com, battling in Skee-ball and the slot-car track, signing the autograph wall and talking about their individual roles and collective mission.
Since assuming the closer role on May 22, Clippard converted 16 of 18 save opportunities and posted a 2.96 ERA (8 ER spanning 24 1/3 IP). He is the Nationals' all-time leader with 74 holds and 337 relief strikeouts, and the latter ranks first in all of baseball since 2009.
"It's been a lot of fun," Clippard said. "We've come a long way as an organization, but I think all of us take pride in having one of the best bullpens in the league, because we know how important it is to win ball games. We just have fun and try to do the best we can out there."
Burnett is the only lefty in the group, but now we know that he rolls righty in Skee-ball. He ranks second in the NL with 20 holds, and has worked scoreless relief in 38 of 44 (86 percent) appearances this season. His 60 career holds rank second all-time among Nationals (2005-now) to Clippard (74).
"We just hope the team and the starters have the confidence to hand us the ball in the sixth and seventh inning with the lead," Burnett said. "Most of the time, we'll get the job done."
Mattheus has a 1.98 ERA (3 ER in 13 2/3 innings) in 14 appearances since being reinstated from the 15-day DL on June 17. His swing-and-miss percentage is up in 2012 (21 percent) compared to 2011 (15 percent).
"I just think it's huge -- we feed off each other," Mattheus said of the bullpen's success so far. Then he referred to the other three sitting beside him: "These guys are having great seasons, and I come in the game before them, so I've got to get the ball to them with the lead. Our starting pitchers do a great job, they're the ones who deserve the credit. We've got to lock down the games for them. It's something we preach, something we practice down there, we feed off each other, and we want to be the best."
Stammen ranks second among NL relievers with 52 innings, is tied for eighth with 50 strikeouts and is 10th with a 2.08 ERA. In his career, he has pitched better in relief (2.85 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 57 appearances) than in a starting role (8-11, 5.08, 4.6 K/9, 38 starts).
"I think we all have a lot of individual pride in what our role is in the bullpen, and collectively that makes us a pretty solid unit," Stammen said. "We get along together on and off the field."
Nationals bullpen coach Jim Lett and bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo were not able to come along, so these four said they would have some stories to tell them. Storen already had been here once last year, when the Fan Cave taped a video with him in a mock election campaign.
"Some normal bullpen antics, they see us down there all the time, so they're probably used to it by now," Clippard said of Lett and Robledo. "This TV setup, the whole thing. They've got a lot games. Right up my alley."
"A little less serious here," Burnett added.
Indeed, as the four sat down on the couch in front of the 15-screen Cave Monster for an MLB.com interview, they were video-bombed by five fans being goofy just behind them through the glass out on the sidewalk. It was the five remaining Cave Dwellers, Ashley Chavez, Gordon Mack, Ricardo Marquez, Ricky Mast and Kyle Thompson -- all on their way to watch "The Dark Knight Rises" at a nearby theater before returning to watch the night's action.
"It's a great way to promote the game, great time for these people getting to watch all the games," Stammen said. "They're lucky to be here."
Then the four left, headed out to Queens and a series opener against the Mets. The division lead was 3 1/2 games, and it was back to the bullpen.
"Just gotta keep going," Clippard said.
"Long road ahead of us," Mattheus added.