Out of Bullpen and Into Spotlight

Nick Johnson, left, is congratulated by Gary Bennett after Johnson scored the opening run on a single by Cristian Guzman, who went 3 for 4.
Nick Johnson, left, is congratulated by Gary Bennett after Johnson scored the opening run on a single by Cristian Guzman, who went 3 for 4. (By Wilfredo Lee -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

MIAMI, Sept. 26 -- Imagine for a moment that the Washington Nationals were still in the chase for the playoffs, and consider this story line playing out across a national stage. People would talk about it as an oddity. "Hey, did you see what this guy Hector Carrasco is doing?" they would ask. "That can't be possible, can it?"

Unfortunately for the Nationals, and unfortunately for Carrasco, the story doesn't matter much beyond the Beltway now, and only 11,467 fans showed up Monday night to see him at Dolphins Stadium. It is, however, fascinating, for Carrasco, the career reliever, dominated again as a starter, leading the Nationals to a 4-0 victory over the flailing Florida Marlins, the only team in the National League East heading in a more southerly direction than Washington.

"This is the first time my whole career I'm pitching the way I'm pitching right now," Carrasco said. "I'm surprising myself."

There is no one in baseball he isn't surprising. The Nationals broke a three-game losing streak and pulled back over .500 in part because a resurgent Cristian Guzman went 3 for 4 with three RBI, but mostly because Carrasco -- who had to beg Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden for a job in the offseason -- made his fourth splendid start in a row. He threw six scoreless innings, allowing all of two hits, a bunt single from Juan Pierre to lead off the game and a bloop single by the opposing pitcher, Jason Vargas, with two outs in the fifth.

But that, along with three walks, was all he gave up in a career-high 93 pitches. Thus, in the 561st appearance of his career, he picked up his first win as a starter. He is in the role only because of injuries to Ryan Drese and Tony Armas Jr., but his ERA in his four starts is 0.92. In his last three starts, he has pitched 17 2/3 innings and hasn't allowed a run. No, he's not Don Drysdale or Orel Hershiser -- not yet, at least. But Carrasco's discovery of a change-up, his willingness to pound the strike zone and the fact that he's in the best shape of his career have the Nationals toying with the idea that he could start next season, even at age 36.

"I don't know how he does it, at this stage of the season," Manager Frank Robinson said. "But he seems to thrive on it."

That there is something to thrive on for the Nationals says something, particularly that they are not the Marlins, perhaps the most talented team in the National League East, but one that appears to be disintegrating. Right-hander A.J. Burnett, a free agent at the end of the year, was told to leave the team Monday after he questioned Manager Jack McKeon and the coaching staff following a loss on Sunday. Star third baseman Miguel Cabrera was suspended for Monday's game because of a run-in with McKeon.

As miserable as things have been in the second half of the season for the Nationals, the situation hasn't deteriorated that badly.

"We're not the kind of team that's not going to try," reliever Gary Majewski said. "We want to have a winning season."

Now, they must win two of their remaining five games to finish at .500. Win three, and they'll have that winning season. Carrasco was the biggest reason they arrived in that position. He pitched out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the first by getting Juan Encarnacion to fly out to shallow left, then inducing a double play ball from Mike Lowell. And he was never threatened again. Before the start, he told the bullpen they would have the day off, and he nearly delivered.

"He doesn't let much bother him," said Majewski, who pitched the ninth. "He's been around the game a long time. He doesn't let little stuff get to him. A lot of guys should be like that. I need to be like that. It takes like 20 minutes, he might be a little upset, and then it's gone."

What does he have to be upset about now? "It's very fun," Carrasco said.

Guzman, finally, is having some fun too. As recently as Sept. 6, the shortstop -- who signed a four-year, $16.8 million contract in the offseason -- was hitting under .200. But Monday, he drove in Nick Johnson with a two-out single in the second, hit a leadoff single in the seventh, then drilled a two-out, two-run double to left in the eighth, providing all the insurance the Nationals needed. His average is up to .215, and Mario Mendoza can rest easy -- Guzman won't tread below that infamous line. Prior to now, his highest batting average for a month was .241 in July, and he's hitting .328 in September. He has 11 RBI this month, when his previous high was seven.

Asked what he is doing better, Guzman said, "I don't know." It is, however, a relief, and he would like the confidence to carry over to next year.

"I hope so," he said. "A month, you go like this [would be good] for next year, the whole year, and the rest of my life."

The Nationals, because of Guzman and Carrasco, have a little life left. And they can be thankful for two things: They might have enough pride to finish with a winning record yet, and they're not the Marlins.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company