For Nationals, No One's Perfect
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Claudio Vargas threw his first pitch at 7:06 last night, and Brady Clark deposited it over the left field wall at RFK Stadium, a span of perhaps five seconds. Perfect game, no-hitter, shutout -- they all vanished before Vargas's right arm was even loose.
Wes Obermueller threw his first pitch some 15 minutes later. This is the Wes Obermueller of the 5.64 career ERA, the Wes Obermueller who hadn't won on the road in more than 13 months, the Wes Obermueller who, in parts of four nondescript seasons with two nondescript teams, had a lifetime record of 8-15.
Yet by the time the 28-year-old right-hander finally allowed the Washington Nationals a hit, it was 8:47 p.m., the Milwaukee Brewers held a six-run advantage, he had retired 19 straight batters, and the game was effectively over. On a wasted night for the Nationals, Obermueller was brilliant, allowing just two singles and no walks in eight scoreless innings, leading the Brewers to an 8-2 victory that was as impressive for Obermueller as it was frustrating for the Nationals.
"That's why," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said, "you don't underestimate anyone who goes out there on the mound."
Even if virtually nobody in the crowd of 26,427 could pick him out of a lineup. Wes Ober- who? Suddenly, as the innings clicked by, this guy was being treated like an outsider in his own dugout, teammates afraid to approach someone on the brink of his finest baseball moment.
"You think about it a little bit," Obermueller said. "But I just tried tonight just to think about how relaxed I could be, even when those situations were coming about. Sure, you get a little anxious, because you think about it. You try not to look at the scoreboard. I just tried to keep in my head that the score was 0-0 the whole time."
Problem for the Nationals: The score was never 0-0, and by the time Jamey Carroll connected for a clean single with one out in the seventh, Obermueller was cruising. From the outside, there was no way to predict this. Obermueller (1-0) hadn't thrown more than 4 2/3 innings all year, and was starting because Milwaukee's ace, Ben Sheets, has been battling dizzy spells and hasn't pitched since April 20.
Yet before the game, Nationals backup catcher Gary Bennett, who played for Milwaukee last year, talked with a few of his teammates about what Obermueller would offer. He's not overpowering, Bennett said, but watch closely the first few innings for a few tips.
"You can tell early on," Bennett said. "If he's scuffling and his breaking ball isn't over the plate, be patient, because he's going to have to come to the fastball when he falls behind. But if not, he's got good stuff, and it's going to be a battle."
Thus, the battle ensued, and the Nationals were never in it. Vargas (0-1), making his second start of the season, didn't survive the second inning, allowing three straight singles and Carlos Lee's eighth homer of the year, a three-run shot that made it 6-0. "Just a bad game," he said.
That left it to the one positive for the Nationals -- the first relief appearance by erstwhile starter Tomo Ohka. Ohka, who hadn't pitched out of the bullpen since 2002, walked the first man he faced, but settled in, allowing just two hits in 5 2/3 innings, "a step in the right direction," Robinson said.
Ohka, though, remained resolute in his feelings about his proper role on the team.
"I'm not a reliever," he said. "I'm a starter."
In the end, Ohka's contribution meant little because the Nationals simply couldn't attack Obermueller, whose command was excellent. He allowed three-ball counts on only four batters. When Carroll came up with one out in the seventh, Obermueller made his one mistake. Brewers catcher Damian Miller called for a fastball inside. For the only time all night, Obermueller shook him off, preferring a fastball low and outside. He left the pitch up, and Carroll, a good high-ball hitter, lined it into right.
"I won't ever second-guess my catcher again," Obermueller said, smiling.
The night was so quiet for the Nationals that the most controversial moment went unnoticed. In the bottom of the seventh, Robinson argued a strike called against outfielder Ryan Church. Home plate umpire John Hirschbeck took exception and tossed Robinson, though almost no one in the park was aware of it.
If not for Nick Johnson's sixth homer of the season, a two-run shot off reliever Ricky Bottalico in the ninth, the night might have been completely silent for the Nationals.
"It's just one of those nights," Robinson said. "Give the opposing pitcher credit. Any time a pitcher is that effective on the mound, you're not going to look very good at the plate."