By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2006
Gary Majewski was pumping fastballs to Wilson Betemit, pitches popping up at 93 and 94 mph on the scoreboard at RFK Stadium. It is, by all accounts, his best pitch, a sinking fastball that stays down and away from a left-handed hitter. From the dugout, though, Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson worried. His team led by a run. It was the top of the eighth, and Betemit's Atlanta Braves had men on first and third with one out.
Robinson had one thought: Too many fastballs.
"He's out there just throwing," Robinson said. "He's not pitching. He thinks harder is better. It's not."
In this case, it wasn't. Majewski served Betemit a 1-2 fastball that missed its intended location, Majewski estimated, "by a couple feet." Betemit, a backup infielder, deposited it over the wall in right-center, the three-run homer that lifted the Braves to a 3-1 victory in front of the smallest announced crowd to see the Nationals at RFK in their two seasons here -- 21,569.
"He's expecting a fastball," Majewski said. "I threw one too many fastballs, but that's my strength. I got to stick with it."
The homer overshadowed other developments last night, some positive, some not so much. Start with Tony Armas Jr., the beleaguered right-hander who might now be coming back to the form that, early in 2003, made him seem like he might be a consistent winner. Two shoulder surgeries later, Armas had a performance that Robinson called "very encouraging," throwing 6 1/3 innings of three-hit, no-run ball against the Braves, lowering his ERA to 2.70 in four starts.
Armas, though, said he is beyond the point where he is happy just to survive, to feel no pain in the shoulder that was last repaired in September.
"I want to get results," he said, "instead of [saying], 'I felt good today.' "
Had the Nationals managed a clutch hit -- other than Jose Guillen's two-out, RBI double in the first -- Armas might have had the desired result. There were two key at-bats that might have broken the game open, and catcher Brian Schneider had the first -- bases loaded, one out in the fourth against Braves starter John Thomson.
"You want to get that hit," Schneider said. "You want to be the man. You want to drive in the runs for your team."
Schneider didn't, bouncing into a double play that ended the threat and the inning. In the fifth, Ryan Zimmerman came to the plate with two outs and the bases juiced again, but he took strike three from Thomson, and the Nationals' lead remained tenuous at 1-0.
That's how it remained after Armas left the game to cheers, after Mike Stanton relieved him and waited out a delay so workers could remove a clever prep school banner that somehow showed up on the wall in center -- "Go Gonzaga. Beat St. John's." And it's exactly how it remained when Majewski, one of the Nationals' most reliable relievers in 2005, entered to pitch the eighth.
The problems started when Braves second baseman Milton Prado, making his major league debut, tripled to right-center, his first major league hit. With one out, Majewski walked Pete Orr, putting runners at the corners and bringing up Betemit, a utility man who entered the game with five career homers.
Schneider, calling the game for Majewski, said the strategy was simple: Keep Majewski throwing those hard fastballs, but keep them down and away. An off-speed pitch, Schneider said, might be easily pulled sharply for a hit, because Betemit is quick on pitches inside.
"Gary's strength is a sinking fastball," Schneider said. "I'm sorry, but when I think of strengths, you go [with it]. If that's Betemit's strength, you still pitch to the pitcher's strength. And obviously, I wasn't looking for the location where he threw it -- and neither was Gary."
Robinson, though, is concerned about Majewski specifically and his bullpen in general. Gone is Luis Ayala, lost for the season to an elbow injury, another option to set up closer Chad Cordero last year if Majewski faltered. Gone, too, is veteran Hector Carrasco, who left as a free agent.
More of the burden, then, will fall on the 26-year-old who posted a 2.93 ERA and allowed only two homers in his rookie campaign. Betemit's shot was the second off Majewski in 11 appearances this year.
"He's got to get back to pitching and locating his pitches," Robinson said. "He can't just stand out there and throw fastballs by people up here, especially if you don't locate the pitch."
Majewski pointed out that if he threw, say, a slider, and Betemit ripped it for a hit, he might be asked, "Why'd you go away from your fastball?"
"You don't want to get beat on your second- or third-best pitch," Schneider said.
Had the Nationals managed one or two clutch hits, they might not have been beaten at all. In the bottom of the eighth, now trailing 3-1, pinch hitter Daryle Ward worked Braves reliever Chris Reitsma to a full count before he grounded out to second. And in the ninth, Washington put runners on first and third -- the second on Jose Vidro's line-drive smash to right that hit off the wall, just several feet from being a home run.
But when Nick Johnson, the Nationals' best hitter in this first month of the season, could manage only a game-ending groundout instead of a game-tying double, the Nationals headed to the clubhouse thinking not about the specific chances lost, but the overall chance at a win that, with one pitch, dissolved into the night.
"This is a game we should have put away tonight," Robinson said. "We have to win those games."