Nationals' Loaiza Sparkles in Tinseltown

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

LOS ANGELES, May 2 -- There could have been so much to down about, given the situation, that the Nationals needed this win Monday night. There was Joey Eischen's broken right arm, suffered Sunday. There was the interminable travel west, which ended with the team at its hotel around 6 a.m. Pacific time. And in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers, there was Terrmel Sledge stumbling on the outfield grass, pulling a hamstring and almost certainly winding up on the disabled list.

Go figure: The only guy in the Nationals' clubhouse without bleary eyes afterward was starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who arrived in L.A. a day early. 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 for the first few innings, 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.

The victory came in unexpected fashion, with a groggy and beat-up Nationals' team collecting the 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.

"This team is there in the end," Manager Frank Robinson said. "I don't see anything getting the team down."

But with the way things are going for the Nationals now, there has to be bad news, doesn't there-- So it was with Sledge in the sixth, when he left with a Grade 2 right hamstring pull -- the second-worst of three degrees of severity. The team is expected to place Sledge on the disabled list Tuesday, the 10th National to be disabled. The team was working through how to free up a spot on the 40-man roster for a replacement, but either Matt Cepicky or Tyrell Godwin -- both hitting well at Class AAA New Orleans -- would seem to be logical choices. Veteran Jeffrey Hammonds, also at New Orleans, is another possibility.

Given the Nationals' grim bullpen situation following Eischen's broken right arm Sunday night, the club 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. "

I've been pitching good," Loaiza said. "I haven't gotten some run support. But we're all in this together. We're all a family."

The family is being tested, even as the team has won three of four. Players and coaches alike talked this spring about the Nationals' new-found depth in the pitching staff, and how if -- God forbid -- 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's 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 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 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 No. 2 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," Robinson said. "We need a left-handed reliever, and we don't have one."

What the Nationals need, period, is some 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 L.A. 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.

 "I needed to show this to Frank so he will have confidence in me," Baerga said. "I haven't come through in a lot of times. It's a start."

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-worst in the 16-team National League.

Here, then, was the depth. Gary Majewski and Hector Carrasco -- both 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.

"We have to be ready for this kind of thing," Majewski said. "Yeah, our roles are different. But you're here because of what you did in the minors. You just have to take the same approach."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company