The Student Becomes The Teacher
Saturday, August 12, 2006
The veteran left-hander is perhaps the best of his generation, the one pitching for all the hardware, an outside shot at another Cy Young Award to go along with the New York Mets' stated goal: a World Series championship. But in a way, the lefty who opposed Tom Glavine last night at RFK Stadium is pitching for more important goals. Billy Traber took the mound for the Washington Nationals looking to resuscitate his career and his confidence -- the things Glavine, in his 20th big league season, finds routine.
"I sit there and watch him and learn a lot," Traber said last night. "He's Glavine, because he's been doing it forever. And obviously, everyone would love to do that, which is why everyone's chasing the same thing."
Traber looked nearly as Glavine as Glavine, spinning seven stellar innings in which he allowed all of three hits, leading the Nationals to an unlikely 2-1 victory over the Mets before an announced crowd of 29,414 at RFK. If Glavine was going to torture the Nationals with off-speed pitches on the outside part of the plate, then Traber would do the same. If Glavine was going to minimize damage when runners reached base, then Traber would outright shut down the Mets, the highest-scoring team in the National League.
"I threw strikes, and I made them hit it," was Traber's simple explanation for his success in an outing that marked his return to the majors after a three-month stint with Class AAA New Orleans. He needed 82 pitches to work his way into the eighth inning, allowing a homer to the second man he faced -- Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca -- but walking none and reaching three-ball counts on just three of the 25 men he faced.
"More than what we expected, exactly what I needed," Manager Frank Robinson said. "He took me where I didn't think he would be able to take me tonight."
If anyone was to pitch into the eighth inning and allow a single run, it would figure to be Glavine, who entered play last night with 287 wins -- 280 more than Traber. Yet at one point, Mets fans figured Traber might be the left-handed anchor of their staff. He was New York's first-round draft pick in 2000, and by the end of the next season, he had risen to become one of the organization's most promising prospects.
That offseason, though, he was part of an eight-player deal with Cleveland. His career was derailed by injuries after the trade to the Indians, and the Nationals signed him as a minor league free agent last offseason. In two previous starts with Washington, both in April, he went 1-1 with a 9.00 ERA, and he returned to the minors, learned a cut fastball -- a pitch he described as "okay" -- and sharpened his simple approach.
"Let them hit the ball," he said. "I can't really be scared of contact."
It is, of course, what has defined Glavine's stellar career. That he sought to become the NL's first 13-game winner last night was something of a surprise even to the people who know him best.
"You always have to be surprised when a 40-year-old is doing what he's doing," said Nationals President Stan Kasten, who ran the Atlanta Braves during Glavine's 16 seasons there. "But if anyone could do it, it doesn't surprise me that it's Tommy. He's fanatical about his conditioning. He's fanatical about his pitching. He's fanatical about his job. And he's extremely motivated by trying to get to 300 wins."
The Nationals answered Lo Duca's homer in the second. With one out and runners on first and third, Glavine threw ball three to Nationals catcher Brian Schneider. On the play, Alex Escobar stole second.
Schneider, in the midst of a season-long slump, realized Traber was the next man up. In order for the Nationals to have a shot at scoring, he had to come through. And in order for him to have a shot against Glavine -- against whom he was just 4 for 27 -- he had to look the opposite way, to left field, where he has hit balls infrequently.
"Especially with Glavine, that's the goal every time," Schneider said. "You can tell yourself to stay back and go the other way, and his change-up and off-speed [pitches] are so good, it just gets you out in front."
Yet here, Schneider shot the ball to left, a double that put the Nationals up 2-1. That those two runs stood up -- only the second time in 35 games Washington has won while scoring less than three runs -- was a testament not only to Traber, but to setup man Jon Rauch and closer Chad Cordero. Rauch worked out of a jam in the eighth, when the tying run reached third and the lead run reached second, bringing Lo Duca to the plate.
The approach: "Stay with my strength," Rauch said. He did, blowing a fastball by Lo Duca on a full count. Cordero then hit Carlos Beltran to start the ninth and walked Jose Valentin with two outs, but got Michael Tucker to ground out to end it, his 21st save.
Afterward, as Traber broke down his performance, the TV in the Nationals' clubhouse showed the Arizona Diamondbacks' game against the Florida Marlins. On the screen, Livan Hernandez -- traded from Washington to Arizona earlier in the week -- unfurled pitches beneath his new purple cap. "Livo! Livo!" left fielder Alfonso Soriano yelled as he walked by.
Traber kept talking. He took Hernandez's place in the rotation for one night, and by pitching as he did, earned a chance to do it again.