By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Only three crowds all season at RFK Stadium had been bigger than the one last night, and they had all come when the New York Yankees were in town, the lucky folks who got to see Washington's best weekend of baseball this season. But just before 10 p.m. last night, a different group of New Yorkers headed down RFK's concrete ramps chanting, of all things, "Let's Go Mets! Let's Go Mets!"
There were plenty of reasons for those blue-and-orange clad fans in the announced crowd of 42,507 to be optimistic about their Mets following a 6-4 victory over the Washington Nationals. One of their most valuable player candidates, David Wright, started a rally in the sixth with a leadoff double. Their other MVP candidate, Carlos Beltran, started the game-winning rally in the seventh with a leadoff double of his own, one of his three hits.
New York's bullpen bailed out starter John Maine -- who gave up a three-run lead -- with 3 2/3 innings of scoreless work, and everything worked as planned. Left-hander Pedro Feliciano tossed a perfect seventh, handed off to right-hander Aaron Heilman for a scoreless eighth, and closer Billy Wagner capped it off with a 1-2-3 ninth in which he struck out two. For one night, anyway, the best team in the National League looked the part, and its fans could chant all they wanted.
But in the Nationals' clubhouse -- which is now part classroom, part psychologist's office, part laboratory -- there are far different circumstances. Washington used one pitcher, Jason Bergmann, who had appeared in 26 games for Class AAA New Orleans this season, 22 as a reliever, yet he started the game. The Nationals followed with another pitcher, Travis Hughes, whose 20 major league appearances have been spread over three seasons. And they followed with still another pitcher, Chris Schroder, whose major league debut came just Tuesday night.
In a way, given that kind of personnel, each game is an audition for the Nationals' pitchers. Bergmann did his job for the most part, giving up three runs in the third inning but keeping the Nationals in the game with a five-inning, 91-pitch performance that he left trailing 3-1. Hughes gave up a run in his inning of work, and only managed to escape a bases-loaded situation when Paul Lo Duca hit a line drive right to second baseman Marlon Anderson. Schroder gave up two more in the seventh -- the decisive runs -- starting with Beltran's double but including a bloop single from Jose Valentin and a sacrifice fly from Michael Tucker.
"Those kids out there are going to be inconsistent," Manager Frank Robinson said, and it is the only realistic and reasonable assessment of the situation. Bergmann, Schroder and Hughes have combined for 20 minor league seasons and three major league wins.
That's the big picture. The tougher thing for the Nationals is to have to deal with that inconsistency night in, night out.
"It's not about developing," catcher Brian Schneider said. "We want to win ballgames right now. Yeah, they're going to get better. But our goal isn't to just get better. Our goal is to get better and win games."
Against teams like the Mets, that's going to be difficult. Last night, Bergmann and Schneider realized a bit too late that the 24-year-old's best pitch of the night was his curveball. The Mets had run-scoring triples from Jose Reyes and Beltran, sandwiched around an RBI single from Lo Duca, in the third, two of the hits on sliders. Lesson number one: Figure out your best pitch early on.
"That happens," Bergmann said. "Each day, a different pitch is going to be your ace pitch."
The Nationals broke Maine's streak of 26 scoreless innings on their first hit of the night, Nick Johnson's towering solo homer in the fourth. After Hughes gave up his run on a chopper off the plate hit by Lastings Milledge to give the Mets a 4-1 lead, Washington tied it by getting a two-run homer from Alfonso Soriano off Maine, then following it with Johnson's RBI single off Feliciano three batters later.
Schroder, though, followed by letting the Mets seize the lead.
"I wasn't nervous," he said. "I feel comfortable."
On the mound, but not with the results. Two nights earlier, the Nationals had fought back from a four-run deficit to tie the Florida Marlins, only to watch the bullpen give up five runs in the final three innings. Each of these inexperienced relievers -- a group that includes Saul Rivera, who pitched two perfect innings last night, as well as left-hander Micah Bowie and right-hander Ryan Wagner -- must deal with the adjustment differently.
Asked what he could gain from all this, Schroder said, "I think maybe not letting the game get too big." Hughes put it a different way: "Sometimes, I let the game get a little too carried away. I need to be able to slow the game down and not let myself speed up."
In the midst of all that self-analysis and growth, the Nationals will try to win games. Friday, they beat the Mets because their two most experienced relievers -- Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero -- closed it out. Those two, though, can't pitch every night. The others will get their seasoning, but while they do, packs of opposing fans might leave RFK chanting for their team.
"If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," Schneider said. "But these guys are going to do their jobs, and we're not going to sit there and go, 'Oh, we're not going to fight back, because they're just going to lose it.' No one has ever made a negative comment about the bullpen here in this clubhouse, and no one will. We're all in this together."