WASHINGTON -- The ninth inning at Nationals Park has so often been the subject of angst and frustration. Almost routinely through the first three months of the season, the ninth had been the site of blown leads and the disappointment that comes with missed opportunities to build upon what was already a dominant season.
But in the Nationals' 3-2 victory on Thursday night against the Marlins, even as the tying run sat 90 feet from scoring, the crowd at Nationals Park was not holding its collective breath as the ninth inning unfolded. Instead, that nervous energy was replaced by 23,904 people chanting "Doooo" in unison for the first time, a nod to the new closer of this revamped bullpen.
"It was really cool," left-hander Sean Doolittle said. "I did hear them a little bit between pitches, between hitters. It made me feel good. Plus, if I ever screw up, it doesn't sound like they're booing, so I got that going for me. It just always sounds like they're saying 'Doooo.'"
Doolittle did not screw up. He responded by pitching a scoreless ninth, sealing the win thanks to a game-saving grab from Andrew Stevenson in left field to convert his seventh save in seven chances with the Nationals. It was yet another victory for Washington, extending its lead in the National League East to 15 games as it cruises toward a fourth division title in the past six seasons.
Now what was once a glaring weakness seems to have been solidified with the trio of Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler -- all of whom were acquired last month before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. They each tossed a scoreless inning in Thursday's victory to improve upon their already impressive numbers since joining the Nationals.
Together, they have combined for a 1.57 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP, with 24 strikeouts and seven walks. Neither Kintzler nor Madson has allowed a run in a Nationals uniform. Madson has struck out 13 batters with just one walk in eight innings.
With these three relievers settling into the end of the game, perhaps the Nationals have acquired their own three-headed bullpen monster.
"Those guys are coming in and shutting people down," center fielder Brian Goodwin said. "They're going right at hitters and attacking them, and they're being kind of vicious about it. Just the way they're throwing the ball, they're commanding the ball, and their presence on the mound, it's relaxing for us."
Close game? Call Kintzler, Madson & Doolittle. You'll save.
Initially, the Nationals were not sure how they would incorporate their new relievers into their new roles. However, after a few weeks, it is clear that manager Dusty Baker ideally wants to have Kintzler, who was the closer in Minnesota, handle the seventh inning before Madson in the eighth and Doolittle in the ninth.
"I learned when I was younger, LaTroy Hawkins told me that we're closers of our own inning," Kintzler said. "So I always try to take that approach as far as no matter what inning I'm pitching in."
That plan is subject to change as Baker tries to avoid pitching Madson or Doolittle on three consecutive days. But now, the Nationals have options late in the game. All three relievers have nearly even splits against right-handers and left-handers. All three have experience closing and are not intimidated by high-leverage spots. And all three have earned the confidence of this Nationals team and crowd.
"I think that's what teams want to have now," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "A lot of the games at this level, you have to win the last three innings or you fight to get back in the game to win the last three innings. When you don't, when it's really hard to score runs against the other team, it's deflating. ... You put a lot of pressure on yourself to get runs early.
"Since they've come over, they've been unbelievable."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.