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Loaiza: Nationals' Man of Mystery

Change of Scenery Could Help Former 20-Game Winner

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page E05

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 19 -- Six men stood Saturday morning behind a pitcher's mound in a distant part of the Washington Nationals' training complex here, a half dozen sets of eyes fixated on a single arm. Jim Bowden, the general manager, peered out from behind his sunglasses. Bob Boone and Jose Rijo, a former catcher and former pitcher who are special assistants to Bowden, quietly evaluated. Randy St. Claire, the pitching coach, stood not far from bullpen coach Bob Natal, checking out their new project. Jose Cardenal, another former big leaguer who also assists Bowden, peered in as well.

All this attention for a man who won but 10 games last season, a man whose earned run average was 5.70, a man who, in the thick of a pennant race, became an afterthought. In the Nationals' situation, though, this kind of evaluation is important, for the hopes of a stable rotation hinge in part on Esteban Loaiza's right arm.

Esteban Loaiza throws under the watchful eye of special assistant Bob Boone. "You just don't know what you're going to get. . . . He's done it before. Will he do it for us? We don't know," General Manager Jim Bowden said. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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It makes sense that there will be scrutiny of Loaiza this spring, because perhaps no one on the Nationals' staff is capable of producing such disparate results. Only once in a 10-year major league career has he won more than 11 games, but that one time gives the Nationals' hope, because it was a 21-win season just two years ago. Only once has he struck out more than 137 batters in a season, but that one time came during 2003 as well, when he led the American League with 207. He has been an all-star in each of the last two seasons, yet posted an 8.50 ERA after a disastrous trade from the Chicago White Sox to the New York Yankees last July.

So as the Nationals' brass watched Loaiza finish his bullpen session -- honing in on a particular pitcher like they hadn't done with anybody else since camp opened -- you could almost see the gears turning: What, exactly, do we have here?

"You just don't know what you're going to get," Bowden said. "Is he capable? Absolutely. He's done it before. Will he do it for us? We don't know."

Loaiza understands how he is perceived, because he waited this offseason for the phone to ring, for deals to roll in. "If he had the year he had in 2003 last season," Bowden said, "we couldn't have afforded him."

But his timing was off, and in an offseason in which questionable pitchers such as Kris Benson and Jaret Wright received three-year deals worth $7 million to $8 million annually, Loaiza signed a one-year, $2.9 million contract in January, partly because it was a firm offer. Other teams -- Texas, Seattle, Los Angeles -- had shown interest, but spring training was approaching. Loaiza, as uncertain a commodity as there was on the market, wanted certainty for his season.

"I needed a job," Loaiza said Saturday. "I needed to work."

For the Nationals to have any chance at success, they need the deal for Loaiza to work out. He will be watched closely all spring, because there are so many questions surrounding him. Why did his velocity dip so much last season, as scouts have said? Why did he have the breakout year in 2003, and then fall off precipitously?

Loaiza, though, doesn't seem to wonder those same things. He believes he understands why things fell apart last season in New York. Not only was his arm tired, he said, but something about the atmosphere didn't agree with him.

"Being traded to the Yankees, it was probably just a little bit too much for me," he said. "Probably, I have too much concentration. Instead of me throwing the ball, I was really concentrating more."

Loaiza was traded to the Yankees for Jose Contreras in a move that was meant to shore up New York's fragile rotation. Instead, Loaiza made just six starts for his new club before losing the job. He was sent to the bullpen. Mentally and physically, he was broken down.

"It's a lot of pressure in New York, and with the Yankees," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "Sometimes, that just affects a person and they put too much pressure on themselves individually. They just can't perform naturally. I think the new surroundings, you're not going to see as much pressure" on him.

Loaiza arrived a bit early to Nationals' camp to become accustomed to his new, less-pressurized surroundings, and he immediately set about trying not only to fit in, but to lead. At 33, he is well aware of what he can offer younger pitchers, particularly those from Latin America, for he speaks fluent English. On Saturday afternoon, he and reliever Luis Ayala unveiled the flag of their native Mexico, and someone snapped pictures. Loaiza reminisced about his days as a rookie himself, when he came up with Pittsburgh and helped teach the young Latin players English. He looked and acted comfortable.

"He can be a big help," Ayala said. "Me, I know him. I know what kind of person he is and what kind of pitcher he is. We know he is confident."

Confidence, Loaiza said, was never a problem. But his surroundings, he said, matter. He is still to meet all his new teammates; position players report Sunday. But he has already identified his role.

"I'm here [to be] a key," Loaiza said. "The key is to help out with the young guys and bring my success here, for the kids to learn what I can do. Nine-plus years in the big leagues and being a 21-game winner and two times being in the all-star game. I'm really welcome here, and they've been giving me a lot of respect. . . . It makes you feel a lot more better."

Feeling better is one thing. Being a better pitcher is entirely another.

"I know I will be," he said. "I'm starting off fresh."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company