Nats See the Ghost of Pitching Future
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 5 -- Before the Grapefruit League schedule began, the candidates for the Washington Nationals' starting rotation were dissected and analyzed, picked apart and, in some cases, laughed at. With 36 healthy pitchers in camp, there were stories to tell, hopes to rekindle, careers to prolong.
Monday afternoon, however, the ugly side of this audition appeared, and there's no telling how it will affect the regular season version of the Nationals. But this much is fact: Jerome Williams, who is right in the thick of the competition to be the Nationals' second starter, lasted 1 1/3 innings against the Atlanta Braves, allowing six runs. Tim Redding, another man in that competition, came on in the middle of the fourth with the bases loaded and recorded as many walks as outs (two).
"That's what they're going out there for, for us to choose the guys who are going to give us a chance," Manager Manny Acta said after the 14-5 loss. "It's spring training. I've seen worse than this. Don't forget: I spent most of my life in the minor leagues."
Now, though, he is in the majors, and before the spring is over he might see worse again. Part of the intrigue of "American Idol" is the disastrous performance of an early contestant or two. But the danger of the Nationals' objective here is that it will produce too many of those outings. The positive spin on the whole process is that the ERAs they have to replace belong to Pedro Astacio (5.98), Tony Armas Jr. (5.03), Livan Hernandez (5.34) and Ramon Ortiz (5.57). The flip side? Even in searching for players who can duplicate -- or, hopefully, improve on -- those numbers, there will be days like Monday, which could serve as ugly precursors to the regular season.
Williams, who was banished to Class AAA by the Chicago Cubs last year, began the game with a decent first inning, allowing only a one-out double to Edgar Renteria. But in the second, he couldn't shake off the fact that a double-play ball was botched by Washington shortstop D'Angelo Jimenez.
"You get that in your mind: 'You got to do it. You got to do it,' " Williams said. "Your adrenaline's flowing, because you're kind of upset with what just happened and you want to try to correct it at that time, at that point. And you try to do it, and you overthrow."
Thus, Williams began a mind game with himself, one he must shake before his next start. His next five batters: double, walk, fielder's choice, single and walk before Acta came to get him. Only four of the runs charged to Williams were earned, but he knew his day had been wasted.
"I was just trying to do too much," Williams said.
Redding, it seems, is being asked to do quite a bit. He said after his outing that pitching coach Randy St. Claire is tinkering with his mechanics. Some of it is working. Some of it is not.
"You try to take the advice that you're given, and try to pick out what's right for you and try to apply it to your game and your situation," Redding said. "And the rest of it is kind of a horse-and-pony show. You do it for the sake of doing it, and if it doesn't work, then maybe you go back."
Redding, whose last major league win came in 2004, was thrown into an untenable situation Monday, coming on in relief of Luis Martinez with one out in the bottom of the fourth and the bases loaded. His first pitch got past catcher Jesus Flores for a passed ball that scored a run, and he ended up walking Brian McCann. From there: hit batter, single, single, single, sacrifice fly, walk and fly out. Redding's line was two-thirds of an inning, three hits, three runs, two walks and a spring ERA that reads like a Dow Jones listing: 40.50.
"I came in," Redding said. "I didn't throw strikes. I didn't get ahead in the count. When I did, I wound up walking the guy instead of getting him out."
St. Claire departed the stadium swiftly Monday and was unavailable to comment. Redding, though, said he believed in some of the suggested changes to his mechanics. But he also knows there is only so much time to make an impression. Acta has said that he would like to whittle the list of candidates to seven or eight by March 15.
"Would I rather pitch in the bullpen and try and figure it out? Absolutely," Redding said. "But it's not going to do me any good without a hitter in there. So it's a double-edged sword."
Monday, the double-edged sword that is the Nationals was on display. Team president Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden sat in the front row for much of the outing. They are believers that their long-term plan for building from within will pay off in years to come. But there could be plenty of days like Monday before it does.