By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
ATLANTA, April 10 -- When Matt Chico turned back to receive a new baseball, Andruw Jones hadn't yet finished circling the bases, his first home run of the year still in progress. Chico accepted the new ball and walked slowly to the patch of grass behind the mound at Turner Field. Jones crossed home plate. The next batter approached. The next pitch had to be thrown.
"I've got to learn," Chico said, "from making mistakes."
There will undoubtedly be many moments like these for Chico, a rookie left-hander who might not be in the majors if he was in the employ of any franchise but the Washington Nationals. Tuesday night, he made his second big league start and took his first big league loss, an 8-0 blowout to veteran right-hander Tim Hudson and the Atlanta Braves.
In five days, Chico will take the ball and do this again, even after an outing of 4 2/3 innings in which he was charged with four runs, just one of them earned. Such is life for a rookie who may or may not be ready for such a stage, facing the Braves in the regular season. Last year, Chico's home parks were in outposts such as Lancaster, Calif. And Yakima, Wash. This year, he likely will reside in Washington for the entire summer -- even if things continue this way.
"He's going to be fine," Manager Manny Acta said.
If he can survive the gantlet he faced Tuesday, maybe he will be. Andruw Jones is preceded in the lineup by longtime running mate Chipper Jones, and they are backed up by young stars Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann. All told Tuesday: two homers, two doubles, six hits and six RBI from that crew. That helps reveal why Atlanta has started the season with six wins in seven games, and why Washington has now dropped five straight and seven of eight to start the year.
Chico got zero support from his offense, which managed only four hits. Hudson, who has started 247 more games than Chico, took a no-hitter into the fifth, allowed three hits in his seven innings, striking out seven along the way. The Nationals haven't yet approached scoring first in a game. They have now played a startling 72 innings and have held the lead after exactly one of them.
"Pretty weak today," Acta said.
And, for good measure, a team that vowed to be better defensively entered play Tuesday tied for the most errors in the majors -- and committed two more.
But this season, as young as it is, is already about seasons to come. Chico, in theory, is supposed to be a part of Nationals teams that may, say, attain such lofty goals as splitting their first eight games in future Aprils. And if those times come, his outing Tuesday night might be something to think back on.
"He might take his lumps," Acta said. "But he's got to learn from them."
Chico's first start last Wednesday was statistically abysmal, a four-inning, eight-hit, six-run explosion in which he allowed the Florida Marlins three home runs. His reaction: "I think I threw all right," he said.
In a way, that was true. Coaches and teammates have marveled at how Chico seems unfazed by his surroundings, responding similarly to a strikeout and a home run. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire got a glimpse into how Chico might handle himself in his final start of the exhibition season, when Chico faced the Baltimore Orioles in Norfolk. Warming up in the bullpen, Chico was, to put it mildly, a bit wild.
"Worst 'pen of the spring -- for anyone," St. Claire said.
Trees hung over the bullpen at Harbor Park.
"He threw one in the branches," St. Claire said. "He was all over the joint. I was like: 'Oh. My. God. How are we going to get two innings out of him?'
"And then he went out there, and he was fine."
So in the first inning Tuesday, when Dmitri Young's error at first base led to the Braves loading the bases, Chico took the ball, walked up the back side of the mound, and got Francoeur to ground into an inning-ending double play. Shrug it off.
But the fifth got him, an inning started when second baseman Ronnie Belliard muffed a popup. "I just dropped it," he said.
Four batters later, Chico had thrown "curveballs right down the middle" to Francoeur and then McCann. They ended up with a pair of doubles and a 4-0 lead.
After McCann's double, Chico walked back up to the top of the mound, put his foot on the rubber again, ready to uncork what would have been his 99th pitch. It never came.
Acta emerged. He took the ball from his rookie. And Chico, this time, walked down the face of the mound slowly to the dugout, perhaps another lesson learned along the way.