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Nats' Starting Pitching Could Be a Real Problem

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

How do you establish a culture of leadership in a season of embarrassment? That's the challenge the Nationals face as they realize, less than a week into the exhibition season, that their starting rotation will probably ensure them a summer of biblical drubbings.

How does a rookie manager, and four players who've never been designated as leaders, survive a year with their pride and reputation intact when their team may absorb even more blows to its dignity than it accumulates defeats? It's early. But it looks as if Manny Acta, Brian Schneider, Ryan Zimmerman, Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns may need a few hugs.

In their Grapefruit League opener last Friday, the Nats allowed a dozen runs. On Monday, they trailed 13-0 after four innings with two prime candidates as starters, Jerome Williams and Tim Redding, allowing nine of the runs (seven earned). Yesterday, they got whipped, 10-6. Washington is 1-5. Excluding split-squad games, they've allowed almost 11 runs a game.

It's a good thing that the first baseball axiom of spring training is, "The pitchers are always ahead of the hitters." What happens when the hitters catch up? Right now, the Nats' hurlers are barely ahead of the hearse.

"A lot of your guys have been bombed. But has any starter looked encouraging yet?" I asked General Manager Jim Bowden yesterday.

The sounds of the Nats-Braves game could be heard over the phone. Someone in the background said: "I've never seen a team make seven errors at shortstop in three games before. We could be here all night."

Then, silence. Finally, I said, "I think we have a bad connection, Jim."

"I hear you perfectly," Bowden said. He's kidding, sort of. "It's too early to tell anything," he says. "Wait another week."

In another week, it's presumably a statistical impossibility that the Nats will still have pitchers with ERAs of 135.00, 40.50, 37.80, 27.00, 27.00, 18.00, 15.43 and 13.50. Emiliano Fruto gave up two runs in 1 2/3 innings and lowered his ERA to 23.14.

But the verdict on the Viera vagabonds may not be too much kinder. Last month, these pitchers all claimed they were loaded for bear from the first exhibition game, even if they only pitched a couple of innings. They got the message. Show up in shape with your arm strong. Be prepared to get somebody out, right away, and win a job in a major league rotation by Opening Day.

Instead, so many have looked so bad that, by process of elimination, the Nats may be forced to rush pitchers who should be in Class AAA, such as Shawn Hill, who had a sore elbow that ended his season early last year, and Matt Chico, who's never pitched above Class AA. But what else can the Nats do? Except for John Patterson (not hurt yet, as of sundown), only Jason Simontacchi has looked stable enough to be trusted in April. And the oft-injured Simontacchi hasn't pitched extensively in several years.

The Nats knew they were flirting with a 100-loss season when they traded or cast adrift Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas, Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio, then made no serious attempt to replace them through free agency. But team president Stan Kasten liked the gamble. Out of a dozen retreads or marginal prospects, surely they could patch together a rotation no worse than last season's mess. But there's a big fly in the ointment. What if all of these guys were out of a job because they couldn't do the job? That hasn't been proved yet. But the exit-poll returns are pretty scary.

There's a big difference between being a losing low-budget team and being the '62 Mets. Bad but still respectable teams can make long-term progress below the surface. But, except for the '03 Tigers, it's tough to find a laughingstock franchise that was just a few years away from being a contender. Are the Nats, with their rotation roulette, running a risk they don't acknowledge?

While the Nats are improving their farm system, they also want to establish a professional clubhouse tone at the big league level so that, by the time kids such as Chris Marrero and Colton Williams arrive in D.C., they'll get proper mentoring.

"We've got rock-solid people at the center of our clubhouse," Kasten said recently, referring specifically to the four young veterans whom Acta singled out as his team leaders. "We're setting these people up as role models who lead by example."

The Nats subtracted a large personality (Hernandez), a big temper (Jose Guillen), a complacent attitude (Armas), a fading star (Jose Vidro) and a couple of eccentric squeaky wheels on the bench. In effect, Acta was left with a team almost devoid of charisma, but also cleansed of any controversy.

In theory, this should work. Acta and his quartet of leaders can create both the work ethic and the "office climate" that they want. True, Zimmerman is only 22. But he says he "welcomes" the responsibility and thinks it's an honor. Lopez and Kearns are quiet "by-example" types and, when pressed, haven't even mastered their leadership speeches yet. Schneider is a natural. But it's hard for good-but-not-great players to galvanize a team. Reliever Chad Cordero volunteers: "I can be a leader in the bullpen. [Patterson] can be a leader in the rotation. We all have to try to do our part."

And, under normal circumstances, they probably can. Especially because they all can slipstream behind the extroverted, confident Acta, who easily is the most dynamic personality in the Nats' room.

Only one dark cloud sits on the horizon. But it's a big one. Enough defeats, especially slapstick, lopsided defeats caused by bad starting pitching, can create a special kind of baseball ugliness. A team that could band together and keep its morale through a season full of games like the ones the Nats have played so far would be strong indeed.

But can enough embarrassment, spread over six months, kill leadership in the crib?

The last few weeks of spring training and the first few weeks of a season usually aren't terribly important, especially for a rebuilding team. But the Nationals are only in their third year in town. Their manager is a rookie. While clearing the decks of possible problems, they also created a leadership vacuum.

Seldom has a franchise needed a few decent pitchers -- just two or three, really -- to identify themselves. Not much is required. Just provide enough competence to give a young, undefined team a chance to grow up straight and strong, not twisted by too many defeats and, worse, far too many jokes.

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