By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006
For four innings yesterday, the Washington Nationals were headed directly in one direction. Milwaukee Brewers left-hander Doug Davis hadn't allowed a hit. His counterpart, Nationals lefty Mike O'Connor, departed the game because of a strict pitch count. All the Brewers had to do was pounce on the Nationals' suspect bullpen and continue to shut down their limited offense.
But this is something of a different team, not the plodding offense that relies solely on Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson, not the ragged-arm bunch that can't get anyone out.
So in this final month of a season in which the Nationals are trying to figure out what usable parts they have for next year, they salvaged a 6-1 victory because of what appear to be their newfound strengths -- a developing bullpen and undeniable speed. The relievers stepped in for O'Connor and turned the game around on Davis, throwing five hitless innings, and sparkplugs Bernie Castro and Nook Logan keyed a four-run eighth inning that wrapped up the game, giving the Nationals their second straight series win.
Start with the bullpen. Austin Kearns broke up Davis's no-hitter with one out in the fifth, launching his 23rd homer of the season, tying the game at 1, and then hit a two-out single in the seventh, putting the Nationals ahead.
"It was Austin Kearns's day," Manager Frank Robinson said.
But it wouldn't have been if not for the relievers. A month ago, the story seemed to be the same every night. The Nationals' starting pitchers were on something of a roll, but the cast of characters the club called up from Class AAA New Orleans -- rookies who had never seen the lights as bright, the hitters as talented -- would routinely turn close games into blowouts. They were here out of necessity, with Gary Majewski, Bill Bray and Mike Stanton all traded away by the end of July. Predictably, they struggled.
"Being young, there's always that [process of] getting out there and getting experience, soaking in being in a big league ballpark and pitching against big league hitters," said right-hander Ryan Wagner, acquired in the July trade with Cincinnati that also brought Kearns and shortstop Felipe Lopez. "But as soon as that soaks in, it's just about going out there and staying with the game plan and executing their pitches, and that's what we've been doing."
They did it yesterday better than in any game to date. With O'Connor limited to 75 pitches -- he threw 69 -- the relievers needed five strong innings. A month ago, that situation would have been disastrous. Now, as Wagner said, "From top to bottom, there's not a guy that, to me personally, I think that Frank's afraid to throw out there."
Yesterday, he turned first to Chris Schroder. This was the 28-year-old's 17th major league appearance. The biggest difference between now and Aug. 8, when he made his debut? "Not as nervous," he said.
It shows. Schroder dominated the Brewers, striking out all six men he faced, showing a little extra life on his fastball. In blowing through the Brewers in the fifth and sixth, he set up the rest of the relievers to do the same.
"I've seen pitchers like that," Robinson joked. "But they're in the Hall of Fame."
Saul Rivera was next, and he walked the leadoff man, but got out of the seventh on a strikeout and a double play. Jon Rauch came after that, and he, too, walked the leadoff man -- a violation for which the Nationals' relievers have now instituted a fine. But he got a popup and a liner to right on which Kearns made a nice play coming in, doubling Tony Gwynn Jr. off first base to end the inning.
With that, the Nationals turned over the game to their speedsters. Soriano made what will be the most lasting impression of the season on Saturday night, stealing his 40th base of the year, becoming the fourth man to ever have 40 homers and 40 steals in the same season. But since the all-star break, he has been joined by Lopez -- who stole his 39th base yesterday -- as well as Logan and Castro, who have both shown they can put pressure on the defense with their legs.
"Those are as fast a guys as anybody in the league," Kearns said. "They definitely can change the game."
So they did. With a man on, Logan laid down a bunt and forced a bad throw from reliever Derrick Turnbow, putting men on first and second with no one out. After a strikeout, Soriano was hit by a pitch, loading the bases.
Castro then forced the game open. He slapped a ball to shortstop that Bill Hall tried to throw home to get a force. "He was thinking two," Robinson said, "without understanding who was running."
The throw was rushed and high, and Brandon Harper slid in safely. Lopez followed by sending a ball the opposite way into right field, easily enough to score Logan from third and Soriano from second. But with third base coach Tony Beasley clearly trying to hold up Castro, Castro motored right through the stop sign and scored comfortably -- giving Lopez a rare three-run single to make it 6-1.
"I'll take it," Lopez said. "The guy put so much pressure on them, and that made a big difference."
With a five-run lead, there was no need for closer Chad Cordero, so Wagner came on and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth. The totals for the day: The Brewers had no hits among their last 24 plate appearances, including 15 by the relievers. And over the last week, the relievers are now 3-0 with a 1.24 ERA.
"A remarkable job," Robinson said. Remarkable yesterday, and remarkable considering what they looked like a month ago.