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Day Tumbles Into Limbo

Poor Outing Opens the Door for Nats' Patterson, Rauch

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page D04

VIERA, Fla., March 11 -- By the time Zach Day finished staggering his way through a cringe-worthy two-inning performance on Friday -- two home runs allowed, two walks, three mound meetings and far too many off-target pitches -- the competition for the Washington Nationals' number five starter job appeared to have been thrown wide open.

With John Patterson and Jon Rauch making increasingly strong cases for themselves this spring, Day, 26, needed a strong outing against the St. Louis Cardinals to retain what is seen as a slim lead in the fifth-starter battle. Instead, his performance suggested whatever lead he might have had is now gone.

Zach Day, struggling to hold onto a spot in the rotation, is "a little frustrated...But it's still early." (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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"Nothing is solid around here. I don't mean that as a threat," said Manager Frank Robinson when asked about Day's status in the rotation. "Especially coming off last year [when Day was 5-10 with a 3.93 ERA], he's got to come down here and perform. Have I taken him out of that spot? No. But still, it's not a lock. We have some other guys who are throwing the ball better right now."

While Day's spring ERA ballooned to 9.00 following the outing, Patterson's stands at 1.80 through two appearances and Rauch's at 1.50 through three. Although it is still considered early in the spring, and thus too soon to make sweeping pronouncements, Day seems to realize he is in danger of losing his grip on a rotation spot.

"I'm a little frustrated now," Day said. "I want to be out there putting up zeroes. But it's still early. You want to be peaking towards the end of spring training, not the start. . . . It's a competition. [But Robinson and the coaching staff] know what I did last year and what I brought in the past."

Circumstances certainly conspired against Day on Friday. He was throwing to backup catcher Gary Bennett, who had never caught him, and who at one point called for a slider -- a pitch Day doesn't possess. But even worse, Day was betrayed by his infield defense, which committed two critical errors in the Cardinals' four-run first inning, prolonging his misery.

After escaping the first inning, Day gave up back-to-back homers to St. Louis's David Eckstein and So Taguchi to open the second. The wind was blowing out briskly to left, but neither homer appeared cheap.

Still, most of Day's problems were self-inflicted. He appeared to be struggling with his mechanics throughout, mimicking his delivery between pitches as if searching for the proper arm slot. He fell behind batters, and when he got ahead, he failed to put them away. After the second out of the interminable first inning, Day started toward the dugout, having obviously lost track of the number of outs.

"What you don't see Zach doing is making adjustments," Robinson said. "When he goes out in the first inning, he's doing the same thing he's done since he's been here basically. . . . Make them swing the bat. Don't go [from] 0-2 [to] 3-2, to where you have to make a fat pitch.

"Those are things you can't do and be successful at this level. So we'll be interested to see him next time out."

While Day has struggled, visiting scouts from other teams have raved about Patterson, 27, who has allowed three base runners in five innings of work, and to a lesser extent about Rauch, 26. Both are big right-handers (Rauch, at 6 feet 11, is the tallest pitcher in major league history) with solid pedigrees who were acquired in trades last year.

If either pitcher is eager to turn Day's struggles into personal gain, they are hiding it well.

"I can't get caught up in all that rotation-versus-bullpen talk," Patterson said. "What good does it do? I mean, I have a preference, but I just have to go to the mound and make my pitches, and I'll be fine."

"I just want to be on the staff," Rauch said, "no matter what my role is."

Any of the three rotation hopefuls could find themselves in the Nationals' bullpen as long relievers should they fail to land starting spots.

"But we don't have to make those decisions right now," Robinson said, "and it would be foolish to do so."

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