By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
He once equated his comeback to an endless slog uphill, and Billy Traber thought he could finally see the apex last week. It took 948 days without a major league start, a full year of rehabilitation and stops with four minor league teams. And finally, Traber thought he had reclaimed success.
Until one, disastrous inning halted his momentum.
Traber's storybook return to Major League Baseball had a painful thud in a 6-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at RFK Stadium last night. Making his second start after a three-year recovery from elbow ligament replacement surgery, Traber managed to retire just four batters. He gave up four runs, walked in a run and generally undid much of the good he accomplished in his first start with the Nationals last week.
By the time the left-hander walked off the mound to a smattering of boos with one out in the second inning, he had buried the Nationals in a four-run hole so deep that eight effective innings could not save them. Despite 11 hits and excellent relief pitching, Washington (7-13) lost its third consecutive game and fell to 1-6 at home. In a trend that's come to define Nationals home games this season, a small crowd of 21,642 thinned as the game progressed.
"Anytime you are down four runs early, it's going to be tough," catcher Matthew LeCroy said. "You're just battling and trying to get back the whole game. That takes a lot out of you."
For the Nationals, it was a game defined by promises and disappointments. The offense sparked consistently and threatened to take the lead in the seventh -- only to falter with the go-ahead runner on base. The bullpen pitched brilliantly -- but two slight fielding miscues by Alfonso Soriano led to two runs.
Traber was most emblematic of promise unfulfilled. He walked to the mound with immense confidence that faded quickly. He retired the first batter, and then devolved. He walked Austin Kearns with one out and the bases loaded in the first inning, giving the Reds a 1-0 lead.
As Felix Lopez trotted slowly home from third, Traber shook his head and slammed the ball hard into his glove. His body language deteriorated with each subsequent blow. He stomped his right foot after a two-run single; he bowed his head in defeat after Manager Frank Robinson pulled him out with two runners on and one out in the second inning.
"We just didn't pitch very well," Traber said. "Quite honestly, we weren't consistently throwing strikes, and when that happens, things pile up. That's the bottom line."
Traber never faced such harsh reality Thursday, when he triumphantly returned to the major leagues with a 10-4 win over Philadelphia. He had spent almost three years anticipating a comeback after he underwent reconstructive surgery in September 2003, and his first game back was idyllic.
The Nationals gave him nine runs in the first two innings, and Traber even managed a hit and an RBI of his own. He pitched effectively, allowing just four runs -- three of them earned -- on two hits in five-plus innings. Afterward, the Nationals spoke of talent and potential.
For a brief moment, it seemed like Traber -- the first left-handed pitcher picked in the 2000 draft and once a top prospect for the Indians and Mets -- had come full circle. In the days after his first start with Washington, the Nationals cautiously wondered if they had stumbled upon a gem. "I hope," Robinson said, "he can give us a boost."
Instead last night he gave them a handicap -- one the Nationals almost overcame. A series of Washington relief pitchers -- Gary Majewski, Joey Eischen, Felix Rodriguez, Mike Stanton and Chad Cordero -- came in and threw effectively. Had it not been for two near misses by Soriano on deep fly balls in the fifth inning, the Nationals would likely have won.
As Traber slumped in the dugout, the Nationals' offense sparked with a consistency rarely seen at RFK this season. Washington scored twice in the second inning and once each in the fifth, sixth and seventh. Soriano belted a home run and extended his hitting streak to 11 games; Jose Vidro had three hits and an RBI.
"I'm really proud of the way the guys kept battling and battling," Robinson said. "We had a lot of opportunities. We just needed that one, extra-big hit to put us over the top."
The Nationals seemed poised to get it in the seventh inning, but Ryan Zimmerman grounded into an inning-ending double play with two runners on base. They went hitless in the eighth and ninth innings and walked off the field with a sobering realization: One bad inning had outweighed eight good ones.
"We played pretty well, did almost everything we could have done," Vidro said. "We just got down real fast by four runs. Take a couple of those back, and this was a pretty good game for us."