By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Some days, some events, some moments in baseball are so incongruous they can scarcely be explained. A slap hitter grabs hold of an unsuspecting fastball and drives it over the fence. A sure-handed fielder approaches a groundball and kicks it away. A pitcher takes the mound -- his repertoire inconsistent, his performance unpredictable -- and, for an afternoon, finds something no one saw coming.
So it was that Ramon Ortiz walked from the home dugout for the ninth inning yesterday afternoon, and the throng at RFK Stadium rose. There was no way to predict this when Labor Day began, but here it was: Through eight innings, Ortiz, a Washington Nationals right-hander, hadn't allowed the St. Louis Cardinals a single hit. He had, in the previous inning, hit a home run himself, the first of his career. He had created a buzz that, for most of the summer, has been sorely lacking in the old ballpark.
"We got everything today," Ortiz said afterward, a smile seemingly frozen on his face.
Well, almost. Ortiz beat the Cardinals, 4-1, in front of a rather delirious crowd of 31,092, leading the Nationals to their fifth straight victory. The no-hitter slipped away when Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles, leading off the ninth, slapped a clean single to center. The shutout slipped away when, after Miles was erased on a double play, St. Louis's incomparable Albert Pujols launched his 43rd homer, ending Ortiz's afternoon one out short of a complete game.
Yet afterward, Ortiz couldn't stop beaming. He has been clear throughout this uneven season that one thing matters to him: winning.
"I want to see this every day, coming to the ballpark and win the game," Ortiz said. "Everybody's happy."
Ortiz, though, hasn't seen this every day -- or even every fifth day, the only member of the Nationals' tattered rotation who has made each of his scheduled starts. Yesterday marked his first outing of September. Behind him was an August in which he posted an ERA (7.50) that was higher than that of all but one starter in baseball.
He can be sharp, as he was yesterday, throwing all four of his pitches for strikes. But he is more often hittable, grooving pitches that are supposed to be off the plate, throwing balls when he needs to throw strikes. How to explain such a dual existence?
"Some days, you don't have your stuff, and you've got to pitch anyway," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Some days, you have your stuff and you don't have your command. When you pitch a game like this, you've got your stuff going, you've got your command going in the strike zone, and you've got good defense behind you. When all three factors are there, you can do something like this."
So Ortiz began dealing. He issued a one-out walk to John Rodriguez in the second, then a two-out walk to Ronnie Belliard to put men on first and second. But he got former National Gary Bennett to fly out. He walked Pujols to lead off the fourth. That, for the rest of the afternoon, is what amounted to trouble. Through eight: No hits, and scarcely a hard-hit ball.
"He looked good the whole time," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said. "If you took strike one, he just got nastier and nastier."
Twenty-one of the 30 men Ortiz faced -- including 14 of the last 18 -- saw a first-pitch strike. So the Cardinals became more aggressive, swinging earlier in the count, trying to jump on his fastball. But Ortiz turned the early contact into easy outs. Before the ninth, the closest the Cardinals came to a hit was Rodriguez's sinking liner in the seventh, one Austin Kearns caught on a dead run. Thirteen of the final 17 hitters Ortiz faced saw two pitches or less.
"He was in complete control today," Manager Frank Robinson said. "I've never seen him better . . . and more relaxed."
The latter part might be the key to Ortiz's performance, because he is by nature emotional and energetic, a bundle of nerves who occasionally flails about at the plate or in the field. There was, however, a subtle part to Ortiz's calm yesterday -- the eight men on the field with him. Nook Logan, who arrived via trade Friday, can run down balls that might be doubles unlike other Washington center fielders. Bernie Castro subbed for the immobile Jose Vidro at second, and he, too, can turn grounders into outs.
Ortiz, careful not to call out a teammate, wouldn't say the defenders made him more comfortable, more confident. Others did.
"When you work hard to get where you want to be, and when you're not there because it's not your fault, it's irritating," said Jose Rijo, the former right-handed pitcher and special assistant to Bowden who has worked closely with Ortiz. "Right now, we got the center fielder. He's so much happier now, because he . . . can pitch inside a little bit more because he knows the guy's going to go get the ball."
So with Ortiz working comfortably, the Nationals finally got to St. Louis right-hander Jason Marquis on Kearns's two-run homer in the seventh. And when Ortiz came up to lead off the eighth, the crowd roared. And that was before he swung at the first pitch from reliever Jorge Sosa. He had, in his career, two extra-base hits. Yet he lined this offering from Sosa into the visitors' bullpen in left.
"Oh, my God," he said he thought to himself. "It's a home run?"
As he rounded first, he thrust his right arm into the air and held it there. On the bench, his Nationals teammates -- silent about the no-hitter to this point, bowing to baseball superstition -- joked with Ortiz. The homer, they said, cost him the no-hitter.
"I think that was Ramon's fault," Kearns said, smiling.
So with Miles up leading off the ninth, Ortiz went back to work -- a bit spent from all that excitement. He threw a fastball for strike one. Miles, though, had something else at work. In 1997, when Ortiz was pitching for Class A Cedar Rapids in the Los Angeles Angels' system, he threw a no-hitter. The last out of that game: one Aaron Miles, an infielder for Quad City.
"I wanted to return the favor, so to speak," Miles said. So he did, sending the single to center, drawing a sigh of disappointment -- followed by a roar of approval -- from the crowd. When Ortiz walked off the mound after Robinson removed him, he waved his cap, drawing even more cheers.
And when he arrived back at his locker after his shower, he found a bottle of Dom Perignon courtesy of Bowden, who said of the pursuit of a no-hitter: "There's nothing like it."
Ortiz knew it. "I'm very happy," he said. Then he all but skipped from the clubhouse, smiling broadly, no telling what would happen in his next start.