Tough Love For Rotation

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

There is a huge risk in exposing a 20-something starting pitcher to extensive losing. Long before Jason Bergmann masterfully took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Braves on Monday night, the Nationals knew the deal.

What if, long term, the kid equates 17 losses and a 5.85 earned run average as failure instead of experience? Does the edge that elevated him to a major league mound die? Is his every start fraught with the fear of being sent down? Or does he bear down and walk the same path as Tom Glavine?

"We had a horrible team on the field when he lost 17 games," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said of Glavine, who was 22 in 1988 when the Braves lost 106 games. "It takes a while to get going. Losing is no fun. I don't know if you learn from it or not, I'm not saying that. But I know Tommy pitched some real good games that season."

En route to 62 wins between 1991 and 1993, Glavine gave Cox and the building-from-the-bottom-up Braves a glimpse -- the same kind of glimpse a 25-year-old substitute teacher gave Washington the other night. And, if you care for this team, that's all you can realistically hope for this season: an unexpected gem from a right-hander fortunate to even be in the rotation, a window into a talent who might be around longer than anyone thought.

Bergmann on Monday night was the best this season can possibly be about for the Nationals -- the hope that five or six players beyond Ryan Zimmerman will end up as building blocks for the next three to five years -- and not walking the halls of Rumson, N.J., trying to find his lesson plan so he can play teacher for a day.

To supplement his income, the guy who stymied Atlanta and beat John Smoltz worked each offseason as a sub. "I taught everything -- French, Spanish, gym, history," he said last night in the Nationals' clubhouse. Bergman didn't actually speak either language, "but I sounded out all the French words as best as I could. It was just something I always wanted to do."

Major league economics are beautiful, no? The Yankees pay Roger Clemens $10 million less than Washington's entire 2007 payroll to shore up their mid-summer rotation; the Nats, bless their cheap-o hearts, find a high school substitute teacher for the $380,000 minimum.

Stan Kasten, who watched Glavine lose those 17 games in 1988 while beginning to refurbish the Braves, has entrusted General Manager Jim Bowden to not look for stardom as much as pieces to a mosaic -- so they and the Lerners can open a new ballpark next season without the stigma of remaining the worst and most frugal team in baseball. They handpicked players such as Bergmann, Matt Chico and Shawn Hill to take their lumps. "We're trying to find out if a guy can handle mentally going 8-15, 8-17, and then be able to next year not bring that into spring training," Manny Acta said last night.

Acta said he and his staff often mention members of the 2003 Tigers staff as motivation to combat the thought of failure at this level. Mike Maroth went 9-21 that season before improving to 11-13 in '04, 14-14 in '05 and 3-0 this season after battling injuries last year. Jeremy Bonderman went 6-19 in '03. He was 14-8 last season, part of a rotation that went to the World Series. "Don't forget Robertson," Cox said, remembering guys who were shelled one season and shined thereafter. Nate Robertson went 7-16 in '05 and was a very respectable 13-13 last season with a 3.84 ERA.

The trick for a young pitcher is not so much to put up Cy Young numbers as merely to stay away from Columbus. Bergman gave up six walks in his first outing and was probably one more poor start from being sent to the minors. Bowden sternly told him he needed to throw strikes and stop worrying about being careful. Or else. After Monday, the rest of baseball is hitting .162 against Bergmann, who leads the majors in opponents' batting average.

"You can take one of two roads," Bergmann said, "you can give up and accept the assignment down or you can take the challenge and go forward. You almost have to look at yourself as a relief pitcher that has a chance to do better tomorrow. That's the only thing you can control."

Said Chico: "The record, you just got to let go right now. It's something I'm not really worried about. It all comes down to mental toughness.

"A guy like Glavine, it didn't matter that he lost 17 games. He knew what kind of pitcher he was going to be. He has a bad year, he knows he's going to come back next year. Whatever happens this year, I want to be better next year."

No one can claim instant redemption like Chico, who in April uncorked a fastball that landed in the second row of the stands -- a la Nook LaLoosh in "Bull Durham." "A couple times after that I walk in the clubhouse, they'll say, 'Don't throw one in the stands.' " With the conscience of an NBA gunner certain he will make his next shot after missing the previous 10, Chico struck the batter out with the next pitch.

"I have a mentality that I'm not going down," Chico said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to stay here for the next 20 years."

It's a leap of faith to assemble what amounts to a roster of rejects, has-beens, never-weres, dreamers and Zimmerman. All you can hope to do is catch lightning in a bottle and somehow find -- accidentally, on purpose or by pure good fortune -- a half-dozen players who show they deserve something better than the hand management dealt them this season. On certain nights of a long season, Jason Bergmann showing he belongs in the major leagues is the best hope the Nationals have.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company