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Nats Look To Starting Pitchers For Relief

Long Outings Would Keep Bullpen Rested

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page D01

PHILADELPHIA, April 5 -- When Frank Robinson, dressed in a brand-new blue warmup jacket, walked to the mound Monday afternoon, the monstrous scoreboard beyond the left field wall showed all the pertinent facts. Phillies: 7. Nationals: 1. Inning: 5.

With that, Robinson, the Washington Nationals' manager, took the ball from starter Livan Hernandez, who walked off the field and into the third base dugout, where he threw his glove against the wall. Over the past two seasons, Hernandez has averaged nearly 7 1/3 innings per start. In the first game in Nationals' history, he logged only 4 2/3, and Washington rolled out five relievers in an 8-4 loss.

Livan Hernandez
Livan Hernandez
The Nationals hope Livan Hernandez and the starters can save the bullpen from being overworked this season. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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"I'll be ready for next time," Hernandez said. "I'm not one to put my head down."

The season opener, as so many Nationals reminded people afterward, is just one game. But it shows the potential importance of Hernandez's starts. No one in baseball has thrown more innings (488 1/3) or pitched more complete games (17) over the last two seasons. Thus, no bullpen in baseball has relied more on one starter so its members can sit back, relax, and get a much-needed breather.

"Last year, it was kind of, 'Oh, thank God he's pitching,' " pitching coach Randy St. Claire said, "because the bullpen would need a rest. We needed that from him last year."

The hope this season, despite Hernandez's shakiness Monday, is that the bullpen will be stronger because more starters will go deeper into ballgames more regularly. The Nationals who were on the team, when it was the Montreal Expos, last year and started 15 or more games -- Zach Day, Tony Armas Jr., Tomo Ohka and John Patterson -- averaged just more than 5 1/3 innings per start. Twenty-three times in 69 starts -- or once every three outings -- those pitchers failed to get out of the fifth inning, something that happened to Hernandez only twice.

"I don't remember the last time he got out before the seventh," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "They got to him. They were patient enough, and they made good swings."

Day gets the next chance to go deep into a game when he pitches the second game of the season against the Phillies on Wednesday night. Of all the culprits that put such strain on the bullpen a year ago, Day was the least guilty; he threw at least six innings in 15 of his 19 starts. He ended up with the assignment to pitch Wednesday because Armas is on the disabled list with a strained right groin.

Robinson originally wanted Armas in between Hernandez and the third starter, Esteban Loaiza, because Hernandez and Loaiza have somewhat similar stuff -- relying on changes of speeds and working the ball in and out. Day, a sinkerballer who has a history of struggling in the first two innings but then settling down, should provide a similar change of pace.

"I think I'm ready," Day said. "It's surprising when Livan doesn't pitch into the seventh or eighth, but I think we've got other guys here that can do that, too."

St. Claire and Robinson said they aren't concerned about the fact they used five relievers Monday because Tuesday was an off day and none of the group -- T.J. Tucker, Joe Horgan, Antonio Osuna, Joey Eischen and Luis Ayala -- pitched more than an inning. They were far from spectacular, allowing six hits and four walks in just 3 1/3 innings, but the Phillies scored only one run. Closer Chad Cordero was the only reliever not to pitch in the opener.

"Everybody's going to have bad days," Eischen said. "Everybody's going to go out there and throw five innings once in a while. Even Greg Maddux throws five innings once in a while. That's why we're there. We're there to pick him up, to give him support. If he's having a tough time, we're supposed to go in there and pick him up, make it easy on him."

Robinson said that each of the relievers who pitched Monday would be available Wednesday night, and that several could go two or three days in a row. "I used some of them just to get their feet wet," Robinson said.

Though the rotation is expected to be more stable this year, Robinson and St. Claire understand the importance of keeping their relievers fresh. "Usually, come August, our arms are dragging on the ground," Eischen said. Last year, the bullpen began the year 1-14. A repeat of that -- regardless of how far Hernandez or the other starters go in games -- would have the Nationals out of contention by Memorial Day.

"We'll see a lot more decent ballgames than we did last year from the rest of the staff besides Livan," St. Claire said. "I don't have any doubt about that."


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