Padres Finally Get to Astacio

The Padres' Dave Roberts steals second, beating the throw to Nationals shortstop Felipe Lopez in the first inning.
The Padres' Dave Roberts steals second, beating the throw to Nationals shortstop Felipe Lopez in the first inning. (By Chris Park -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

SAN DIEGO, Aug. 5 -- The men who make up the Washington Nationals' relief corps frequently play cards before games, sitting around a table ribbing each other, seemingly at ease. They should be comfortable, really, considering many of them have been teammates off-and-on the entire season. Not here in the big leagues with the bright lights, but on the buses and back roads of the minors, pitching for Class AAA New Orleans.

It is from that group that Nationals Manager Frank Robinson must choose each time his team is in a tight spot in the middle of a game, each time the starter peters out before he can turn to the men who have become the stalwarts, setup man Jon Rauch and closer Chad Cordero. Saturday night, faced with that situation -- a tie game in the seventh -- Robinson looked to the bullpen, couldn't find a suitable choice, and stuck with his starter, Pedro Astacio. The San Diego Padres made him pay, using Mike Cameron's RBI double to spark a 6-3 win over the Nationals, guaranteeing they will close out a nine-game road trip Sunday with a losing record.

Robinson's decision was an uncomfortable one -- a tiring starter or an inexperienced reliever. Astacio needed just one more out to depart the game having pitched seven solid innings, having forged a tie. The options: Bring in any of a slew of relievers -- Ryan Wagner, Roy Corcoran, Travis Hughes, Saul Rivera or left-hander Micah Bowie -- who have spent the bulk of the season in the minors.

"It is kind of a guessing game," Robinson said earlier this week. "It's almost like, 'Let me see what you can do.'"

So he chose to see what Astacio could do. And on his 106th and final pitch of the night, Cameron got to him, turning around a fastball to give the Padres a 4-3 lead.

Robinson came to get Astacio after that, and the events that followed -- Mike Piazza's hard RBI single off Rivera -- showed why his other choices aren't that palatable, either. Such is the state of the Nationals' rickety pitching staff, over-worked and inexperienced, unable to make homers from Ryan Zimmerman and Marlon Anderson stand up.

"They're learning," catcher Brian Schneider said. "Right now, we're in a situation where we've had some injuries, and our bullpen's young. Sometimes, that's going to happen. But it gives you no excuse."

It does, however, lead to moves. Corcoran came on in the eighth and allowed the Padres an insurance run. After the game, he was optioned back to New Orleans, and the Nationals will recall lefty Billy Traber prior to Sunday's game. Traber will be available out of the bullpen initially, but could also be in line to start next Saturday at home against the New York Mets.

"It happens, man," said Corcoran, who posted an 11.14 ERA and allowed opponents a .414 average in his six appearances since being recalled.

It is likely to happen again to these Nationals, because -- with myriad injuries and the trade of relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski -- they are sifting for pitching anywhere they can find it. Astacio, for instance, came to Washington only out of necessity, only because of an injury to former Padre Brian Lawrence. When Lawrence -- acquired in a trade for third baseman Vinny Castilla, who was released last month by San Diego -- went down with a season-ending elbow injury in spring training, the Nationals worked to sign the 36-year-old Astacio.

Saturday, Astacio fell behind 3-0 after three innings. Meanwhile, his counterpart, right-hander Mike Thompson, plowed through the Nationals, retiring the first 11 men he faced until Zimmerman came to the plate in the fourth. The rookie third baseman hit a monstrous homer in Friday night's 6-2 victory. And with the Nationals still looking for their first hit, he laid into a 1-0 offering from Thompson, sending it on a line to left-center, his 15th homer of the year.

With one out in the fifth, Anderson -- starting for the 15th time since Jose Vidro went down with a strained hamstring on July 17 -- drilled the first pitch he saw from Thompson into the seats in right field, and just like that, Thompson had allowed only two hits, but the game was tied 3-3.

So Robinson, wary of what was available in the bullpen, stuck with Astacio into the seventh, though he had never completed seven innings this season. He didn't make it out of the inning Saturday night, either. With one out, he walked Dave Roberts, a dangerous proposition in a tie game considering Roberts's 32 stolen bases.

"His undoing in the seventh inning was walking Roberts on four straight pitches," Robinson said.

Yet when Astacio retired Brian Giles on a fly ball, he had his longest outing of the year -- 6-2/3 innings. Get one more out, and his night would be over, accolades all around. Yet the next hitter, Cameron, drilled his double to left-center, scoring Roberts.

"It's a bad pitch," Astacio said. "I leave it in the middle of the plate."

The difference between these teams, other than the fact that the Padres lead the National League West and the Nationals are last in the NL East, was shown in those final innings.

Lefty Alan Embree got a key out in the seventh, retiring Schneider on a weak grounder when the lead run was on second. Then setup man Scott Linebrink allowed a bloop single to Alfonso Soriano and a two-out walk to Zimmerman in the eighth. But with the tying runs on base, Linebrink blew a 94-mph fastball past Nick Johnson, ending that threat.

And in the ninth, the bullpen door swung open just as the opening notes of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" thundered through the park. San Diego Manager Bruce Bochy had no guessing game involved to bring in closer Trevor Hoffman, and he closed out the Nationals to win the game -- not to mention the battle of the bullpens.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company