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Mike Wise

Will the Real Loaiza Please Stand Up?

By Mike Wise
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page D01


There are pendulum-swinging characters in the Nationals' inaugural season, players whose personal fortune will make Washington more than mediocre or just plain maddening. Esteban Loaiza, Thursday afternoon's starter, is such a pivotal character.

Is he the pitcher who cruised for more than an hour against the Philadelphia Phillies, throwing no-hit baseball until the first batter of the fifth inning? Or is he the 33-year-old who gave up three runs in the bottom of the sixth at Citizens Bank Park, and then the lead in the seventh?

Is Nats' Esteban Loaiza the pitcher who threw no-hit ball into the fifth, or a 33-year-old who gave up three runs in the sixth, then the lead in the 7th? (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

Is he the 10-year veteran who went 21-9 with the Chicago White Sox in 2003, finishing second in the American League Cy Young voting? Or is he the fragile right-hander whose deliveries were often reversed into Yankee Stadium's center field last fall, where New Yorkers derisively nicknamed him, "Lousy Esteban?"

Three games into the Nationals' existence and one game into Loaiza's Washington career, it is much too early to tell.

Passing judgment on the resilience of Frank Robinson's club is much less difficult.

Go ahead, you loyal Senator legions and leftovers: Cut and paste the standings and box score for posterity.

The Nationals moved into at least a tie for first place in the National League East, rallying again. A series of game-turning plays bailed out Loaiza, including the brilliant, two-inning relief of Chad Cordero, who earned the win in a 5-4 victory.

Washington came back to tie the score in the top of the eighth and won on Jose Vidro's moon shot into the left field seats in the 10th.

Wild but true: The Nationals took their first series over a much wealthier, more experienced team that believes it can contend for the division title.

It's early, but Loaiza's teammates took him off the hook with the intangible play that decides games as much as seasons. The Nationals displayed keen execution at the most crucial junctures on Thursday.

"It's nice to see," Robinson said of his team's performance in the three-game series with Philadelphia. "It showed them if they stay close, they've got a chance."

Loaiza was productive, if unspectacular, for 6 2/3 innings in the third game of the new franchise's history. He gave up five hits and three walks, controlling the Phillies for much of the afternoon. In the bottom of the sixth and seventh, the most decorated Mexican-born pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela was just one out away from escape.

But he could not hold a three-run lead, which will become increasingly vital for a team not blessed with many home-run hitters. Loaiza gave up a two-run, two-out single to Pat Burrell in the sixth inning. He gave up the go-ahead run when Placido Polanco hit a two-out single in the seventh inning.

The right-hander who imploded with the Yankees -- an earned run average of 8.50 and 1-2 record in six starts -- reappeared. Loaiza gave up a pair of walks in the sixth. He hit a batter and then allowed two singles.

"I'll take that," Robinson said of Loaiza. "He looked at home out there. He looked at ease. He moved his pitches up and down and in and out of the strike zone. He kept their hitters off balance and us in the game."

Four runs turned out to be allowable. Especially after Jose Guillen led off the top of the eighth inning with a triple. Nick Johnson scored him to knot the score at 4. This was not a small feat. Scoring a runner from third with less than two outs is paramount for the Nationals.

Vidro making a tough catch at second base to end the Phillies ninth was huge, too. Cordero struck out Jim Thome and Burrell to end the game, allowing one base runner.

"When you lose a game like that, a one-run game you're in, it's the kind of thing that can shake your confidence after a while," Cordero said. "We needed that. That's the kind of game we need to win all season, the close ones where it just comes down to something extra."

These are the kinds of plays the Nationals have to make to win, to back up a player like Loaiza as he regains his form and poise.

"I was feeling good the whole game," Loaiza said. "I was mixing in all my pitches and we won. That's what we all want."

Loaiza was not a bad gamble, coming off his miserable showing in New York. He only cost $2.9 million. The mutual option included in the contract means either he or the Nationals can decide to re-sign in Washington. If Loaiza re-emerges as one of the game's better pitchers, management can recommend to the new ownership that he is worthy of more millions. If Loaiza is hit hard and often, the risk was not great.

Either way, he and the staff have very good support thus far.

Over the past two games, Brad Wilkerson has seven straight hits. He opened with a single and a double Thursday afternoon after hitting for the cycle for the second time in his career on Wednesday night. Vidro and Guillen also have the power and the poise to homer in the clutch.

Vinny Castilla, who had four hits on Wednesday, does not look all of his 38 years at the plate.

Robinson understands he does not manage Murderers' Row. But then, these Nationals are not the slap-single bunch, either. As the manager said, almost all of his best hitters have the capability to put the ball out of the park at any given moment.

That's a comforting fact if you're Esteban Loaiza, trying to regain your confidence and control at a pivotal moment in your career and a franchise's history.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company