WASHINGTON -- The bullpen actually came first.

Two years ago, Stephen Strasburg was a rookie, Bryce Harper was in high school, Gio Gonzalez was a member of the Oakland A's, and Jordan Zimmermann was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. But the seeds of a dominant bullpen had already been sown at Nationals Park.

Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Sean Burnett had already begun making National League hitters look silly, even as the Nationals limped to a 69-93, fifth-place finish. They were three of the key cogs in a solid 'pen in 2011, as Washington climbed from the cellar to respectability. Now, even though they've been there all along, the Nats' relievers seem to be the forgotten men on a first-place team.

In Monday night's wild 5-4, 13-inning win against the Braves, Washington's relievers were the biggest key. Seven pitchers combined for eight innings of four-hit, shutout ball, working around some walks early but overall providing exactly what manager Davey Johnson needed. They've been doing that for a while now, as the 2012 Nats 'pen has coalesced into one of the game's best.

"I'm not sure about on the outside, but on the inside it definitely doesn't get undersold," said starter Edwin Jackson, who would have pitched the 14th if Washington had not scored in the 13th. "The whole team, as a staff, we definitely understand what kind of bullpen we have, and tonight is a prime example. We were able to shut them down for, what, how many did we play? We come out and we're able to hold them."

They're a reason this team stands atop the National League East. But just as important, as a playoff-type game on Monday showed, they're also a reason why the Nationals will be a team to take very seriously in October.

For all that has been written about the dominant Washington rotation, and about the All-Stars past, present and future in the lineup, they wouldn't be where they are without the bullpen. The Nats have a 24-17 record in one-run games, second best in the National League. They have 12 relief losses, third fewest in the league. Knock those numbers down to merely decent, and the East race is a lot closer.

And those numbers happened despite a good bit of drama along the way. There were definitely some bumps in the first half of the season. In its current iteration, the Washington relief corps is as strong as it's been all season.

They go four deep on the right side and three on the left side. They have a right-hander who can go multiple innings (Craig Stammen) and a lefty who can do the same (Tom Gorzelanny). They have lefty-killers and righty-killers, strikeout pitchers and guys who can get a ground ball.

It's not only a deep and talented 'pen, it's beautifully assembled, with complementary pieces. It's the kind of group that can make a manager look very smart, but also the kind that a smart manager can get a whole lot out of.

"Everyone pitches to their strengths," said closer Clippard. "They don't ever deviate from the plan, and everyone has a plan."

As with pretty much any bullpen, the group that takes the field in August is not exactly the same as the one that broke camp in April. Brad Lidge struggled so much that he was released. Henry Rodriguez averaged nearly a walk per inning before landing on the disabled list with a back injury. Storen missed the first half of the season due to injury and hasn't yet been his old self.

Now, however, they're deep and dangerous. They helped lay the groundwork, and whether they get the attention or not, they're central to the Nats' continuing success. Don't forget about them.

"It's only going to get more fun," Clippard said. "Tonight was indicative of that. We had a great time tonight. ... We're having a blast."