VIERA, Fla., March 12 -- With a box score and a little imagination, one can picture a majestic, towering blast, over the wall and deep into the stands. In reality, however, it was more like a fluky slice job to the opposite field that night, just inside the foul pole, leaving Jon Rauch more sheepish than impressed at his first big league hit, as he ducked his head and touched 'em all last Aug. 13. Well, and there was also this: It came off Roger Clemens. And Rauch would have to bat again a few innings later.
"It was," Rauch, the Washington Nationals' right-hander, says now, "very much a fluke."
Nationals' Jon Rauch went 3-0 with a 1.54 ERA in his brief time with the organization last season.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Well, duh. Clemens was the legendary Houston Astros pitcher who had allowed only one other home run to an opposing pitcher in what, at the time, was a 21-season career. Rauch was a 25-year-old whose last homer had come in American Legion ball.
Still, it is somehow fitting to begin Rauch's story with an epic, Bunyan-esque moment, the reason for which becomes clear as soon as Rauch stands up and unfolds his 6-foot-11 frame. The tallest pitcher in major league history, who is trying to win a spot in the Nationals' starting rotation this spring, does nothing small.
In his first two appearances this spring, Rauch, 26, has allowed only one earned run in six innings, while holding opposing hitters to a .167 batting average. With presumed fifth starter Zach Day struggling this spring, Rauch and John Patterson are making strong cases to win the job. Both will pitch again on Tuesday.
The homer off Clemens that night makes for a nice conversation starter with the soft-spoken big man, but as it pertains to Rauch's standing with the Nationals, it is more instructive to look at what Rauch did on the mound in that same game, less than a month after the Montreal Expos -- as the Washington franchise was known last season -- acquired him in a trade with the Chicago White Sox.
That night in the fifth inning, three innings after homering off Clemens, Rauch was working on a no-hitter when he threw a pitch and immediately doubled over in pain. Ultimately, he had to be helped off the field, and was later diagnosed with a strained oblique muscle.
He returned a month later, and allowed only one run over his final 17 1/3 innings. But time ran out. The season ended, and the team's management was left wondering if what it had seen in Rauch's brief time on board -- a 3-0 record and 1.54 ERA in two starts and seven relief appearances -- was for real.
"Do I know what he can do as a starter? No," said Nationals Manager Frank Robinson. "But I've looked at his stuff and the way he threw the ball last year for me. I know he can [be effective] over a short period of time [in relief]. And maybe over a long period of time. Who knows?"
Rauch views himself now as having come full circle, from the days when he was the top pitching prospect in the White Sox organization, only to suffer a shoulder injury in 2001 from which he has yet to fully recover.
Once a flame-thrower whose heat seemed even hotter to opposing hitters because it appeared to be originating from right in front of their faces -- because of his astounding height -- Rauch has had to learn to pitch lately with more modest tools, including a fastball that these days hovers around 91-92 mph.
"I just don't have the same arm," Rauch said. "Things didn't work out like they should've with my rehab [from shoulder surgery]. I should've taken more time. I was kind of rushed through it, and I never returned to where I was, 100 percent. I don't know [if I ever can]. I'm just thankful I can still go out and get hitters out. That's the most important thing. Hopefully, someone here recognizes that."
Rauch's tenure in the White Sox organization was tainted by a rancorous ending, stemming from an incident last May during which he walked out of the team's clubhouse after being yanked, without permission and without alerting anyone. At the time, Rauch called it a "miscommunication," explaining he thought he had permission to leave because he was being sent back to Class AAA Charlotte after the start.
Rauch later apologized, but the damage was done. White Sox GM Ken Williams declared, "If any team has any interest in Jon Rauch, they should contact me."
The Expos did exactly that, ultimately acquiring him in a trade that sent Carl Everett to Chicago, and thus far Rauch has done nothing to make the organization regret it. In fact, they have reason to believe the trade could be a highly lopsided one, in their favor.
Even if he never hits another homer again in his life.