By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005
It was a mismatch on paper, in the minds of fans and, decidedly, on the field. Dontrelle Willis is on his way to a signature season at just 23, one in which he might lead the Florida Marlins to the playoffs. John Halama has already been cast aside by one team this season, and is only pitching for the Washington Nationals because the team has lost, to injuries or trade or the waiver wire, no fewer than six other starters.
So the announced crowd of 25,702 that filed into RFK Stadium last night was predictably treated to the mundane, a blowout that felt more like a beer-league softball game on the Mall than a key matchup in the chase for the playoffs. The particulars: Willis beat Halama, who couldn't get past Manager Frank Robinson's first-inning hook, and the Nationals wore a path between the bullpen and the mound at RFK in a miserable 12-1 shellacking.
"You want to talk about that debacle?" outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "Tonight? Tonight felt like we were a second-tier team, and they came just to give us a whupping."
The whupping started with Willis, who dominates the Nationals like no other pitcher. He improved to 20-8, lowered his ERA to 2.52, became the first 20-game winner in Marlins history, not to mention the first black player to win 20 games in the majors since Dave Stewart won 22 for Oakland in 1990. It was all there: his high leg kick, his change of speeds -- and, as if those weren't enough, his bat.
In his six innings, Willis allowed only two more hits (four) than he had himself (two). In four at-bats, he singled, doubled, scored twice and drove in a run. Perhaps the Nationals, baseball's lowest-scoring team, could acquire him in a trade -- and have him hit fifth every day.
Halama, by contrast, was granted the opportunity to get a ground-out, allow a single, walk a man, strike out Carlos Delgado, then issue a run-scoring double to Juan Encarnacion. After two outs, five batters and 24 pitches -- 13 of which were balls -- Robinson had seen enough of Halama, who is a National only because the Boston Red Sox cast him aside earlier this summer.
"I didn't like what I saw," Robinson said. "I wasn't going to sit there and wait till he gave the game away in the first inning. You're going to pitch for me, you're going to throw strikes."
Except each of the seven pitchers Washington used allowed at least one run. Thus, the Nationals, who seem to face a must-win game every two or three days, stare directly at another one tonight. They are now 3 1/2 games behind the Houston Astros in the wild-card race, and are allowing the Marlins to pull further ahead. They now are just 3-3 on this 10-game homestand that, before it started, was acknowledged as the key to their season.
The good news for the Nationals: John Patterson, one of three remaining starters on the roster, starts tonight at RFK, where he is 6-0 with a 1.76 ERA. "I hope he's got about 12 innings in him," Robinson said.
But the last two nights -- in which the Nationals started one rookie, Darrell Rasner, and one journeyman, Halama, in the heat of a playoff chase -- have served as a stark reminder of all the pitching the Nationals have traded away or lost to waivers. Zach Day, Tomo Ohka, Claudio Vargas and Sun Woo Kim all struggled with Washington. But in these lean days, when the only healthy body they have in return for those four is outfielder Preston Wilson, having even one back would be considered a bonus.
In the two losses to the Marlins, the Nationals used 11 relievers. And all that pressure appeared to finally catch up to what, to this point, has been a stalwart group. Travis Hughes, Jason Bergmann, Gary Majewski, Hector Carrasco and Mike Stanton all appeared in each of the last two games.
"Tonight was something that was bound to happen," lefty Joey Eischen said. "We were bound to get our bell rung."
As it turns out, even Ryan Zimmerman couldn't make a difference. The first-round draft pick got his first start of the season, despite Robinson's declarations of two days prior, when the manager said he wouldn't play the 20-year-old at shortstop because it wouldn't be "fair."
But there Zimmerman was yesterday, playing short. Robinson's explanation for his change of heart: "From day to day, things change."
Then, too, there was the matter of facing Willis, and there were two problems with that. First, he has dominated the league for much of this season. Worse, he has historically trumped the Nationals. He is now 8-2 against the franchise -- be it in Montreal or Washington -- all-time, including 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA this year.
"Sometimes," Robinson said, "certain pitchers just have your number."
So, in part, came the rationalization for sticking Zimmerman in the lineup.
"Why not?" Robinson said. "We don't do anything with this guy anyway."
Zimmerman started well, lashing a one-hop double over the wall in the second off Willis. But by the end of the night, he had committed a pair of errors at short, was retired in his final three at-bats, and was listening to Robinson in the dugout, talking about calming down a bit.
"It was fun," he said. "I wish I could've done a little better."
The only bright spot: a solo homer from career minor leaguer Rick Short, his first in the majors. Other than that? Toss it out. A mismatch, from start to finish. And if the Nationals don't provide a different outcome again tonight, they may not play another meaningful game this season.