By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007
CINCINNATI, May 24 -- There is no accounting for the way Mike Bacsik pitched Thursday night, or the way he pitched last week in what was his first major league start since 2004. But the 29-year-old Washington Nationals left-hander -- a man who thought he might be out of baseball when these very same Nationals released him in 2006 -- somehow spun 7 2/3 innings of three-run ball in a 4-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, a decision that gave Washington three wins in this four-game series.
Each time Bacsik squinted in to look for the sign, he stared at the fingers of one Brian Schneider, his catcher. Such is the status of the Nationals these days that even when they get a 3-for-4, two-RBI performance from first baseman Dmitri Young, even when they get a home run from shortstop Cristian Guzman, even when Chad Cordero makes hearts thump when he closes it out in the ninth, the most important player on the field, day-in and day-out, might be the guy who went 0 for 4 Thursday.
This hodgepodge staff -- one that has four-fifths of the starting rotation on the disabled list, one that has used 17 different pitchers this year -- is now getting production from all sorts of unexpected sources. Not the least of those is Bacsik, who notched his first major league win since Aug. 4, 2004, when he was in Texas, and now has a 1.98 ERA in his first two starts with Washington.
So, as the Nationals have fashioned 10 wins in their past 14 games, nods have gone out to pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who stitches it all together, and a few more to Ricardo Aponte, the bullpen coach who's keeping the relievers focused on a nightly basis.
But the one man who is there each night is Schneider, the 30-year-old who has a staff of pitchers who, almost every time, throw the pitch he wants to throw.
"We can talk all we want about our pitching staff and the great job that Randy's doing, and Rick Aponte," Manager Manny Acta said. "But Brian Schneider's been huge."
As the Nationals have waited for offense -- they had only twice scored seven runs in a game before this week, and they did so three times in this series -- they have chewed through pitchers. The turnover has been so rapid that last week, when lefty Billy Traber came up from Class AAA Columbus, Schneider didn't get to say hello until he met Traber on the mound for his first appearance.
"You got guys coming up here I haven't caught since spring training," Schneider said. "It's tough, being able to talk to them about what's been working for them down there, to what might work here. Where to set up. What counts to get out there on the corners. There's a lot of things going on, but it's all about what's going to make them the most comfortable."
So Bacsik got comfortable with Schneider quickly. When he made his Nationals debut with six scoreless innings against Baltimore on Saturday, he shook Schneider off once. On Thursday night, when the only runs he allowed came on a solo homer to Adam Dunn in the fifth and a two-run blast from Alex Gonzalez in the eighth, he followed Schneider's advice on each and every one of his 100 pitches.
"When he goes over the hitters before the game," Bacsik said, "he has a commitment to what he says, and he knows it's going to work, which makes me believe it's going to work, too."
Schneider, then, convinced Bacsik of the game plan, and then went out and executed it. Bacsik, with no guarantees as to how long he'll be here, essentially put his career in another man's hands.
"I don't know if I could do that," Schneider said. "If I'm a pitcher, just say, 'Whatever this guy calls, I'm throwing it.' For someone to do that, you got to respect him."
So it worked Thursday, even as Bacsik said: "I got away with some pitches. Those were crush-me pitches."
Yet the reeling Reds didn't crush many of them. After Dunn homered in the fifth, he came up again with a man on in the seventh and struck out on a flat, 75-mph curveball.
"Luckily, I think it was so pathetic that he missed it," Bacsik said.
Bacsik unexpectedly cruised into the eighth holding a 4-1 lead. "That was really your shot-in-the-arm type of outing from him today," Acta said, because the bullpen had only Traber, lefty Ray King and Cordero available.
The key play came in that inning, too, after Bacsik gave up a pair of singles to start the frame. Ryan Freel hit a liner to second baseman Felipe Lopez, who tried to double David Ross off the bag. But Lopez's flip went past Guzman, and Ross broke for third.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman pounced on the ball, and he flipped to Bacsik, who alertly covered the bag. The odd double play meant that Gonzalez's two-run homer that followed made it 4-3 rather than tying the game.
And when Cordero got Dunn to ground into a game-ending double play, Schneider went to the mound to greet him, another pitcher coddled through another night that led to yet another win.