WASHINGTON — The short answer: maybe.
The sample size is far too small to make much of, but in the four games he’s appeared in since a stint on the Disabled List, this is what he’s done: 4.0 innings, 1 hit, 8 strikeouts. He hasn’t allowed a run or walked a batter, he’s saved all three of his opportunities and he’s thrown just 54 pitches — 13.5 pitches per inning.
Washington’s bullpen struggled when Papelbon was out, and the end of games have been an uphill climb for the team all season.
Shawn Kelley has accumulated 15.2 innings pitched in the ninth inning or later, second behind Papelbon, and his ERA in that time is 5.17. He’s given up three home runs and walked three batters while striking out 22 batters, but opposing batters are hitting .267 against him.
Felipe Rivero has pitched 6.1 innings, allowing 6 hits, 4 earned runs and 2 walks while striking out 8. Oliver Perez has given up 2 earned runs and 7 hits in 5.2 innings, Sammy Solis has allowed 4 earned runs, 5 hits and 2 walks in 5.1 innings, and Matt Belisle has allowed 2 hits, 2 earned runs and 2 walks in 3.0 innings.
Only two pitchers have been decent in the ninth inning or later this season, aside from Papelbon, for the Nationals. Yusmeiro Petit and Blake Treinen have combined to pitch 26.1 innings, allowing 19 hits, 6 earned runs, 3 home runs, 11 walks and 28 strikeouts. Petit’s ERA is just 1.98 while Treinen’s is 2.13, and Treinen has allowed batters to hit just .167 while Petit has allowed batters to hit just .235.
Papelbon was not exactly dominant before he went to the DL, but he got the job done. When he was out, the Nationals struggled late in games — Rivero and Kelley each blew a save — reiterating the importance of a dominant closer.
If Papelbon continues to pitch like he has in the four games since he returned from the DL, the Nationals don’t have much of a reason to seek a new closer. If he falters and returns to his early-season struggles, however, Washington could again be in the market for Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman or somebody else.
Whatever the Nationals decide to do, it appears they’ll need to make a move if they want to replace Papelbon as the go-to ninth inning guy, as nobody on the current roster has shown to be markedly better than Papelbon.