Loaiza Trumps Mets' Martinez

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

The featured attraction, when the matchup became apparent last week, was Pedro Martinez, the Dominican diva who would make his first appearance for the New York Mets against the Washington Nationals. The featured development, in the hours preceding the game, was Jose Vidro, activated by the Nationals and in the lineup for the first time in two months and one day.

But even with the pizzazz of Pedro and some vindication for Vidro, the featured performer that the crowd of 35,087 at RFK Stadium got to drink in was none other than Esteban Loaiza, who turned in a splendid performance by carrying a shutout into the ninth before turning things over to closer Chad Cordero in a 3-2 Nationals victory that was a bit more hectic than it needed to be.

Loaiza allowed a leadoff single to Cliff Floyd in the ninth, just the sixth hit he allowed, and headed to the dugout. On his way, he tipped his cap, then playfully exchanged high-fives with his appreciative teammates, victory all but in hand. But Cordero allowed two hits, and an ill-advised throw by right fielder Jose Guillen put the tying run in scoring position with one out. Yet when he got pinch hitter Brian Daubach to pop up, Cordero, narrowly, had his 30th save, the Nationals' 23rd one-run victory.

Couple all that with Vidro's return -- he had three ineffective at-bats before doubling home a key run in the seventh -- and things felt right again at RFK, where the Mets had beaten the team with baseball's best home record on Monday afternoon. Catcher Brian Schneider singled home the first run off Martinez in the second. Guillen responded to being hit by a Martinez pitch in the first by singling three times off the Mets' ace, the last of which drove in Vidro with the Nationals' final run in the eighth.

When the Mets wooed Martinez from the Boston Red Sox with a four-year, $53 million contract, Loaiza was just about the last pitcher anyone in the baseball world was talking about. He was last seen pitching for the New York Yankees, giving up a broken-bat single to Boston's David Ortiz at Fenway Park in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, keeping the Red Sox' hope alive.

In January, though, the Nationals signed Loaiza to a one-year, $2.9 million deal, and despite his lackluster record -- which improved to 5-5, reaching .500 for the first time all season -- he has been a stalwart for Washington, having allowed three or fewer earned runs in 13 of his 17 starts. Last night was perhaps his best, a 114-pitch effort that lowered his ERA to 3.61.

When Vidro's name was announced prior to the game, the crowd did its best to sound its approval, and when he came to the plate as the second batter in the bottom of the first, a few fans stood to show their appreciation. Even though his reputation -- as a three-time all-star, a leader on this club when it resided in Montreal -- he is largely an unknown commodity to most of the fans at RFK, where he had played only 13 games before last night. His last came against these same Mets the night of May 1, three days before he badly sprained his left ankle -- and suffered tendon damage as well -- while sliding into home plate against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But even before he stepped on the field, the Nationals had an idea of what he will mean to this club -- if not against Martinez and the Mets, then the rest of the way.

"Some teams, they might have felt comfortable pitching to this lineup," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "But now, there's that other bat in the lineup, and you've got to pitch everybody more careful. . . . He's the guy with the game on the line that's going to be feared."

Perhaps not quite yet.

"He won't be war-ready," hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "But he'll produce."

Vidro, prior to the game, said that's what he hoped to do. Prior to taking the field, he was cautious in assessing how he would do -- "I'll have a better idea after the game," he said. But his smile, rarely seen during his rehabilitation from the injury, was a good indication of how he felt to do simple things such as jog on the outfield grass prior to the first pitch.

"It was a long time," Vidro said. "It was a very, very long time. It was a lot more than what I expected when I got hurt."

When Vidro last played, the Nationals were 15-13, headed into the meat of a nine-game western swing, and just hoping to stay afloat until he returned. Last night, though, they showed the qualities that not only have kept them in the race, but put them atop the National League East. When the ball was hit to them, they caught it. And the man who took the mound turned in a more than serviceable performance.

Loaiza walked Marlon Anderson with one out in the second, but otherwise was completely under control, working ahead in the count, tossing a fastball that reached 94 mph but countering with off-speed pitches in the seventies. The Mets didn't have a hit until Anderson singled to lead off the fifth, and through seven, Loaiza had scattered five singles -- using a double-play ball in the seventh -- and mixed in eight strikeouts.

And even with the histrionics of the ninth, in which Guillen uncorked a throw all the way to the backstop when David Wright singled to make it 3-1, the performance stood up for a win. The last out recorded, Loaiza -- not Martinez -- joined his teammates at center field, slapping backs and smiling broadly.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company