By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
MIAMI, April 17 -- A year ago, the combination was easy to follow, even if a Washington Nationals starter lasted all of five innings. Hector Carrasco would hand off to Gary Majewski, who would leave the ball for Luis Ayala, who would then turn it over to Chad Cordero, the closer.
That combination helped the 2005 Nationals win 60 of the 70 games they led after six innings and was perhaps the most significant part of the team's success before the all-star break. Now, though, the makeup is different. There is no Carrasco; he left as a free agent. There is no Ayala; he suffered a season-ending elbow injury while pitching in the World Baseball Classic.
"I think this group can be as good," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "But I think we're still learning. Some of them are learning me, learning the team. But I think they'll come together like they always have in the past."
It is taking time. As the Nationals took their first off day in two weeks Monday -- resting up for a three-game series in Philadelphia, which will be followed by the first two-series homestand of the season -- there is no group that needed a break more than the bullpen, which has been overworked and, at times, near tatters during the first 13 games, only four of which were wins. Of the 30 teams in the majors, only two have bullpens that have thrown more innings than the Nationals' 44.
Last year, with Carrasco wielding his new change-up and Ayala slinging fastballs, Washington's bullpen posted the third-best ERA in the National League, 3.55. Through the first two weeks of this young season, that number has slipped precipitously to 5.73, 14th of the 16 NL teams.
The struggles have affected just about every member of the bullpen. In Sunday's win, Majewski -- who surprised by posting a 2.93 ERA in 79 appearances as a rookie in 2005 -- was handed a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning against the Florida Marlins, and promptly coughed it up by issuing a leadoff walk, a double and a triple.
"I didn't go out there and do my job," Majewski said.
He isn't alone. Rookie Jason Bergmann lasted only two appearances in the majors before being sent to Class AAA New Orleans with a 54.00 ERA to make room for starter Ryan Drese. When Drese went down with an elbow injury, the Nationals called up Saul Rivera, who hasn't yet appeared in a game and may return to the minors as early as Thursday, when the Nationals plan to call up lefty Billy Traber to take Drese's spot in the rotation. The only reliever who has pitched well enough out of the pen to be considered for a starting job is Jon Rauch, who has a 2.00 ERA in seven appearances but, because he has pitched so frequently, was battling a shoulder problem and had Sunday off to recuperate.
Even with the unrest, the mainstays have struggled from time to time as well. Lefty Joey Eischen has allowed more than one run in four of his six appearances, and if he continues to stumble, the Nationals could release him and turn to lefty Bill Bray, who hasn't pitched a game in the majors.
Majewski and Cordero both pitched in the World Baseball Classic, and because they were used infrequently there, they needed to catch up when they returned to spring training, and in some ways are still doing so. Cordero finally pitched in all three games of the series against the Marlins, issuing a homer in a loss on Friday night, recording a tenuous save that included two walks on Saturday night and then, finally, tossing an easy 1-2-3 inning to nail down another save Sunday.
"I don't think he ever felt that he couldn't get it done," St. Claire said. "It's just nice to get him going. He's getting close to being out of spring training [mode]. He was good [Sunday], aggressive in the strike zone, just like we want to see."
If Majewski and Cordero provide reasonable duplications of their 2005 seasons -- though no one expects Cordero to lead the majors with 47 saves, as he did a year ago -- then the back end of the bullpen will be fine. The key might be right-hander Felix Rodriguez, signed as a free agent to replace Carrasco.
Thus far, Rodriguez -- who made at least 68 appearances a year from 2000 to '04 -- has been inconsistent, allowing runs in four of his eight appearances for a 5.73 ERA.
The framework, though, is there. He is over a knee injury that limited him to 34 games last year with the New York Yankees, and he's throwing in the mid-90s. Sunday, he pitched two scoreless innings against the Marlins to bridge the gap between starter Ramon Ortiz and Majewski. Plus, he wants to work.
"Every time you ask him if he can go," St. Claire said, "he says, 'Yeah, yeah. I'm fine, my friend.' "
In order for the Nationals to be fine, their bullpen will have to be as well. Asked if this group could impersonate the one from 2005, catcher Brian Schneider said: "We're going to have to. We don't have another choice."