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Nationals' Loaiza Sparkles in Tinseltown

But Sledge Pulls Hamstring in Win Over Dodgers: Nationals 6, Dodgers 2

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005; Page D01

LOS ANGELES, May 2 -- When the Washington Nationals finally arrived at their hotel Monday morning, struggling to their beds in an attempt to sleep in broad daylight, Esteban Loaiza was out cold. He was the only member of the Nationals to fly west early -- departing before the Nationals' Sunday night game against the New York Mets in Washington.

Next time, in this situation, if Loaiza wants first class, he'll get it. If he'd like plush towels and room service at the hotel, he'll get that, too. While the rest of the Nationals dragged, Loaiza dazzled, spinning six innings of one-run ball and getting enough support to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 6-2, his first win for his new club.

Nats pinch hitter Carlos Baerga drives in Vinny Castilla with a base hit during the seventh inning against the Dodgers. (Kevork Djansezian -- AP)

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The victory came in unexpected fashion, with the groggy and beat-up Nationals getting the key, pinch-hit, go-ahead single from none other than Carlos Baerga, who had just one hit in nine previous pinch at-bats. Jose Guillen's seventh home run of the season -- a two-run shot in the ninth -- provided the final measure of insurance, and the Nationals' decimated bullpen held together just fine.

But even as the Nationals got their first West Coast trip off to a fine start, there was bad news. Left fielder Terrmel Sledge stumbled in the outfield in the sixth inning, left with a pulled right hamstring -- Grade 2 on the three-step severity scale -- and is expected to be placed on the disabled list Tuesday. Sledge will be the 10th player on the Nationals' disabled list, and Matt Cepicky -- hitting .286 with five homers at Class AAA New Orleans -- is a logical choice to be called up.

Given the Nationals' grim bullpen situation following Joey Eischen's broken right arm Sunday night, the Nationals needed such an outing from Loaiza (1-2), just three hits and three walks with seven strikeouts before he was lifted for Baerga in a 1-1 game. In Loaiza's last two starts, he has allowed seven hits and three runs in 14 innings, striking out 18, looking like the 21-game winner from 2003.

Players and coaches alike talked this spring about the Nationals' newfound depth in the pitching staff, and how if the team was hit with a rash of injuries like it was last year, when it played as the Montreal Expos, it would be better equipped to handle it.

Well, here's that rash, and man, does it itch. Joe Horgan is the only pitcher who began the year in Washington who is no longer with the Nationals strictly because of performance. T.J. Tucker (groin) and Antonio Osuna (shoulder) aren't scheduled to be back soon. And then there is Eischen, who underwent surgery to repair his right radius Monday at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list Monday, but team doctors expect him to miss eight to 12 weeks. Teammates believe the loss of the charismatic, brash Eischen would be more devastating from a morale standpoint.

"Think about it, not only with Joey, but with Tuck," catcher Brian Schneider said. "For the guys who have been on this team a long time, those are two guys you trust. You know what they can do. It's two guys that will take the baseball every single time you ask them to. It's not just on the field. It's in here, too."

The club didn't make a move to replace Eischen on Monday, so it played with just 10 pitchers -- five in the bullpen. The strongest option still seems to be Tony Armas Jr., who was slated to be the team's number two starter before he suffered a groin injury late in spring training. Armas, who is 1-2 with a 4.82 ERA in four starts for New Orleans, threw on Saturday and would not have been available Monday.

"We don't need Armas right now as far as the situation," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We need a left-handed reliever, and we don't have one."

What the Nationals need, period, is better health. Sledge slipped awkwardly while trying to field a double by Los Angeles's Hee Seop Choi and had to be replaced by Ryan Church. That play led to the Dodgers' best chance against Loaiza, and Jeff Kent delivered an RBI single, giving Los Angeles a 1-0 lead.

But that was short-lived. In the seventh, Cristian Guzman's fielder's choice scored Church to tie the game, and Baerga delivered just his third hit of the year to score Vinny Castilla. The Nationals tacked on two more in the eighth -- RBI singles from Castilla and Guzman, who extended his hitting streak to 10 games -- and then turned it over to what was left of the bullpen.

Nationals' relievers entered Monday's games with an ERA of 5.51, 13th in the 16-team National League. Here, then, was the depth. Gary Majewski and Hector Carrasco -- both in the minors when the season began -- combined for two perfect innings, and Jon Rauch finished it off, allowing Milton Bradley's solo homer in the ninth.

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