Bullpen seems a bit overworked in second half

It was a strength entering the season as the Nationals relied on their bullpen again to take pressure off a talented starting rotation that was unable to provide extended innings.

In the National League, only the Colorado Rockies have pitched more innings in relief this season. Washington, meanwhile, has relied on just seven starters all season, and the bullpen has thrown 359 innings entering Monday's game at San Francisco.

With the bullpen's performance slowly degrading during the second half, is this a sign that the Nats saved their starters at the expense of their relievers? The cumulative bullpen ERA is now 3.33 -- 12th among the 30 big league teams. Or is it just a rough patch as the team barrels toward the postseason with a healthy lead in the National League East and nearly a double-digit one over the teams sitting just outside of a playoff spot?

Closer Tyler Clippard had a rough July with a 5.79 ERA in 14 appearances. He also has blown three saves since July 17, and only a sensational catch by teammate Roger Bernadina in Houston last week saved Clippard from another one. Because the bullpen's workload has been spread out among all its pitchers, he is one of the few with a high number of appearances with 54 total and 531Ú3 innings. But even then Clippard should fall short of his last two seasons: 91 innings in 2010 and 881Ú3 innings in 2011. So the club sees Clippard's occasional struggles as a temporary hiccup, and there are plenty of options to give him rest, if needed.

"[A deep bullpen] is a tremendous luxury," manager Davey Johnson said. "There are some other guys -- [Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus, Michael Gonzalez] -- none of them would be intimidated by the situation. We've had this rough schedule."

But Washington is close to finishing a stretch of 35 games in 34 days dating to July 13, the start of the second half. That includes a pair of doubleheaders and concludes with two games in San Francisco this week before the Nats can look forward to three days off in the remaining days of August.

That will help the bullpen rest and even help former closer Drew Storen, who is still trying to find his form. He has had rough games against Miami and Houston this month with two walks allowed in each. Storen later gave up a walk and a hit in a 5-0 win over the Astros. But he does have four holds and a save, so this may be a matter of pitching himself back into shape. His command comes and goes, and that's an issue he's working to fix.

"I think the big thing for me is if I can get my sinker to do what it was doing," Storen said last week. "There's no reason not to pitch to contact when you've got the guys playing behind me like I do."