Nationals Are Latest Stop For Michalak

The Nationals' Austin Kearns makes contact on a pitch thrown by Dodgers starter Jason Schmidt in Washington's Grapefruit League opener, a 12-7 loss.
The Nationals' Austin Kearns makes contact on a pitch thrown by Dodgers starter Jason Schmidt in Washington's Grapefruit League opener, a 12-7 loss. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007

VERO BEACH, Fla., March 2 -- The face of the franchise, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, hit a mammoth home run, and his spring was in swing. The starting pitcher, right-hander Shawn Hill, had his sinking fastball producing grounders, and though the Washington Nationals booted a couple behind him, he generally was pleased. The new manager, Manny Acta, got his first look at his team against another club, and though the Nationals' 12-7 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday afternoon admittedly was sloppy, Acta was able to smile afterward.

"It's just the first game," he said.

But in the middle of that first game, a 36-year-old left-hander took the mound at Holman Stadium. When Chris Michalak was welcomed over the public address system as a visiting player who once had worn Dodger blue, hardly a head turned. No need for Michalak to tip his hat. His time with the Dodgers: a half-season in Class AAA in 2000, a baseball lifetime ago, yet just halfway into Michalak's career.

For some players, spring training is about honing a swing or refining a delivery, seven weeks of tweaks and mental preparation that merely is a precursor for the true grind ahead. That process began in earnest Friday with the Nationals' Grapefruit League opener, a meaningless contest precisely a month away from Opening Day at RFK Stadium.

But for Michalak, spring training wasn't that way in 1993, when his pro career began, and it isn't that way now, as he enters the season with his 14th different organization.

"I've never gone into a camp where I've had a secure job or anything like that," Michalak said. "I've always got to prove myself, prove that I can pitch."

His head has very little hair on top. If someone believed he was a coach, few would argue. So when he relieved Hill in the bottom of the third, the person most concerned with Michalak's performance was Michalak himself.

"I don't want anything different from him than I want from anyone," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "Get ahead of hitters. Throw strikes. Get early contact."

It is a speech Michalak could give to any young pitcher now, one he has mastered through his 518 professional appearances, just 61 of which have come in the major leagues.

"I'm not going to impress anybody with velocity," he said. So he must nibble with his change-up. And if that doesn't work, he must test his curveball. He'll throw in a sinker, occasionally offer a "little cutter," he said. It's a mix-and-match mind-set he has developed over time, a long way from Opening Day in 1995, which he began in Class AA Huntsville, on his way up in the Oakland Athletics organization. He stood there when the national anthem began, and he thought to himself: "They call up guys from Double-A all the time. I'm possibly one step away from the big leagues."

He was 24.

"So what did I end up going out there and doing?" he said. "I went out there and tried to press and tried to do too much. And the next thing you know, I'm back in A-ball."

And not for the last time, either. Michalak's odyssey took him from Tulsa to Tucson, from Albuquerque to Arizona. He reached the majors for the first time with the Diamondbacks in 1998. Five appearances lasting 5 1/3 innings. His ERA was 11.81. He didn't return to the majors until 2001.

In 2004, he went to camp with the Milwaukee Brewers. They didn't have any established lefties in their bullpen. With a week left in spring training, Michalak was the only one remaining. Yet they called him into the office, and the message was delivered: They were going with all right-handers.

"That was the low point," he said.

He could have quit. No one would have questioned it. Moreover, very few people -- other than his wife and two kids -- would have cared. But he went to Class AAA for the Brewers and was traded to the Florida Marlins in July, the sixth consecutive year he changed organizations in midseason. The following year, he didn't get a job until March, and then only as a favor from a buddy in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Class AAA again.

In a way, in any clubhouse into which he walks these days, he is an instant running joke. He reached the majors with Cincinnati last year after a four-season absence. But by that time, some of the Reds' players he knew from his first tenure in the system -- half a year at Class AAA Louisville in 2003 -- were familiar with the game, "Six Degrees of Chris Michalak." The objective: Link any player to Michalak in six moves or less.

"It never got over like three players," Michalak said. "And then, of course, they got frustrated and they dropped Babe Ruth on me." His response: "I might be able to get to it."

The most meaningful developments for the Nationals on Friday likely involved people such as Hill, a strong candidate for the rotation, and Zimmerman, the team's best player. But Michalak went to work with the zeal of a rookie. "First game," he said. "If you don't have butterflies, you shouldn't be out there."

He pitched his two innings, gave up an infield single and an unearned run. No scout did a double take. No teammate was wowed. "Persistent," is how Acta described him.

And Michalak will continue to be that way until someone, finally, takes the ball from his hand.

"I'll play until I'm not getting people out," he said, "and until the other 17 organizations tell me, 'No.' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company