By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
A month ago, the vision of a throng of people gathered at RFK Stadium chanting "Berg-mann! Berg-mann!" would have seemed downright preposterous. Jason Bergmann, at that point, was on the brink of being sent to the minors, a fairly talented right-hander who had walked six men in his first start of the year. He could have been replaced in the Washington Nationals' rotation, perhaps never to return.
Last night, though, that chant came in the ninth inning at RFK. Bergmann had carried a no-hitter through seven electric innings, leaving the mound with a one-run lead over the Atlanta Braves. With that, Bergmann's 25-year-old head popped from the dugout, and he doffed his cap.
That Bergmann pitched superbly in a 2-1 victory over the Braves -- over eight-plus innings in which he allowed all of two hits and struck out 10 -- has become almost expected, because his ERA since that first unsightly start is now 2.18. That he is worthy of a curtain call is a sign of the about-face his career has taken in the past seven outings, a span that finally ended with his first victory as a starter, not to mention a chorus of people belting out his name even after Brian McCann broke up the no-hitter with a solo homer to lead off the eighth.
"That's fantastic," Bergmann said. "It's a good feeling. It warms me."
Bergmann is sending the warm feelings back to the fans now. They are witnessing not only the development of a prospect, but a team that now has some juice. When the Nationals arrived home last week, they had lost eight straight. Now, with Bergmann and the other members of a maligned rotation leading the way, they have four consecutive wins.
"I think every one of those kids have taken it very personal, the way that everybody has addressed their abilities," Manager Manny Acta said. "They're trying to prove people wrong, but they haven't taken it so personally that it gets in the way of just working and getting better."
Nobody has been better than Bergmann, and perhaps no transformation has been so alarming. This stint began on April 12 at Atlanta, when he outdueled his opponent last night -- potential Hall of Famer John Smoltz -- with six innings of one-hit ball. Since then, he has shown a surprising ability to overmatch hitters. After giving up two hits in his eight-plus innings, opponents are now hitting .162 against Bergmann, the best in baseball.
Still, a no-hitter?
"I don't think you ever think about it," Bergmann said. "How many games end in a no-hitter? Not many. So you just go out there and try to limit the amount of hits that you do give up. If it's zero, that's fine. But I wasn't going for the no-hitter at all."
That he was in the position to even consider such an accomplishment shows some combination of maturity and mental growth, all in a month's time. Bergmann has been adamant that the changes are mechanical. He isn't trying to throw too hard, which allows him to stay on top of the ball, which leads him to be more closed in his delivery, which prevents the ball from spiraling out of the strike zone.
"I think most of it is physical," Bergmann said.
Ask around, though, and it's possible his most important body part is now his head.
"It's more than just being on top of the ball," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "Mentally, he's in a whole different place."
That confidence was apparent from the first pitch, and he blew away the first four hitters he faced. Strikeouts, all. The first base runner came in the fourth, a leadoff walk to Kelly Johnson, Bergmann's only free pass of the night. As he worked through a perfect seventh, the mood in the dugout, players and coaches said, was normal, albeit fraught with anticipation.
"I absolutely thought he was going to do it," fellow starter Jason Simontacchi said.
The Nationals claimed a 2-0 lead on Austin Kearns's RBI double in the seventh. Kearns, it turned out, drove Smoltz from the game later that inning. Ryan Langerhans failed to get down a squeeze bunt, and Kearns was caught off third. He tried to duck to avoid Smoltz's tag, but when he applied it, Smoltz leapt away in pain. He dislocated the pinkie on his right hand and spiked his glove, glaring at the Nationals' dugout.
Smoltz, who could be well enough to make his next start, later said his reaction was just in frustration, that he understood Kearns didn't try to hurt him. That allowed the drama to resume with McCann leading off the eighth.
Bergmann, who started 19 of the 27 men he faced with strikes, began McCann that way. But then he tried to go with a slider down-and-in and, as catcher Brian Schneider said, "it just didn't break the way we wanted it to."
McCann laid into it, a no-doubt homer to right. But Bergmann composed himself and got three fly balls to get out of the inning, preserving a 2-1 lead. Yet there was one remaining wrinkle. After Matt Diaz singled to lead off the ninth, Acta removed Bergmann.
"After a kid gives me an effort like that," Acta said, "I would never give him the opportunity to lose the ballgame."
But closer Chad Cordero was in his first day back with the club following bereavement leave. Fill-in Jon Rauch had thrown three straight days. So on came Jesus Colome, whose last save came in 2004.
With two out and two men on, Colome fell behind the Braves' most accomplished hitter, Andruw Jones, 3-0. Colome came with three straight fastballs. Jones took two for strikes, then swung through the last one.
"It was in the middle," Colome said. "I don't know how he missed the pitch."
Because he missed it, the game ended, and Bergmann had what he wanted -- a victory, a curtain call, another night to extend a startling turnabout in his career.