Fill-In Starters Provide Relief

Jason Simontacchi, who played for the Cardinals from 2002 to '04, had not pitched in the majors since then.
Jason Simontacchi, who played for the Cardinals from 2002 to '04, had not pitched in the majors since then. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On May 5, John Patterson threw a pitch in the bottom of the third inning at Wrigley Field in Chicago, signaled to the bench for the medical staff, and came out. He hasn't pitched since. On May 11, Shawn Hill threw five no-hit innings against the Florida Marlins at RFK Stadium. He warmed up for the sixth, felt discomfort in his elbow, and came out. He hasn't pitched since.

On May 14, Jason Bergmann threw seven no-hit innings against the Atlanta Braves at RFK Stadium. When he woke up the next morning, his elbow felt sorer than usual. He hasn't pitched since.

Ten days, three pitchers, three injuries, one gigantic mess. Such a scenario should have spelled disaster for the Washington Nationals. Somehow, it has coincided with a rejuvenation. Patterson, the team's presumed No. 1 starter, remains on the disabled list with elbow and biceps soreness. Hill and Bergmann -- who combined for a 2.73 ERA in their 16 starts -- are there, too. So it has been left to characters such as Mike Bacsik, Micah Bowie and Jason Simontacchi to fill in. They have done so admirably, and in some cases, stunningly.

"I didn't know this was going to happen," Bacsik said, reflecting something of the sentiment running through the clubhouse.

Bacsik, Bowie and Simontacchi, at some point in the last few years, each wondered if he would ever pitch again. Now, in combination, they have helped the Nationals to a 12-5 record since the night Hill departed his start against the Marlins, a 6-0 victory that ended an eight-game losing streak. Seven of the Nationals' 12 wins from starters have come since that night. During that stretch, along with rookie left-hander Matt Chico, the three fill-ins have posted a 3.42 ERA, the kind of number that had Hill passing Manager Manny Acta the other day in St. Louis and saying, "You're not missing me too much."

"I just like the make-up of them," said Simontacchi, 33. "They're humble, and they respect the game, and they're absorbing everything. They listen and they work hard, and they believe in themselves. You're going to be successful if you do that."

Still, there was no way to predict the Nationals would be this successful with this kind of rotation. Another member of the original starting five -- right-hander Jerome Williams (0-5, 7.20 ERA) -- also is on the disabled list. Yet the Nationals have won four of their past five series. They open a nine-game homestand tonight against the Los Angeles Dodgers with five wins in their last six games.

"The pitching's been there," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "It seems like I say that every day."

The one player who hasn't worked out in the rotation is rookie Levale Speigner. Like Bowie, Speigner began the year in the bullpen, and that is the role for which he is best suited. His three starts have led to a disastrous 14.81 ERA, and the Nationals haven't lost a game started by someone other than Speigner since May 19. That night, Bacsik threw six scoreless innings in his first major league start since Aug. 14, 2004, but the bullpen couldn't hold a 1-0 lead.

So bizarre is this scenario that Chico, who had never pitched above Class AA and made his first major league appearance April 4, has more starts in the majors since 2004 (11) than Bacsik, Bowie and Simontacchi do (eight). Consider that when Bacsik is asked if he ever considered the possibility that he would never make it back to the majors, he responds matter-of-factly.

"Sure," he said. "Last year, April 1, when Washington told me, 'You know what, we don't have any spots for you in Triple-A. We're going to release you.' "

Thus began an odyssey in which Bacsik, then 28, wondered if his record 307 professional appearances -- just 22 of which were in the majors -- would stand unchanged. The Nationals, not exactly teeming with prospects, brought him into camp but released him. He went home to Texas, continued to throw, made every contact he could in baseball, had his agent burning up phone lines.

"I mean, you're throwing," Bacsik said. "You're playing catch. You're keeping yourself in shape, and you're thinking, 'Am I going to get another chance? Is this it?' "

Bacsik said he realized the fragility of his situation, and vowed that if someone called, he would re-dedicate himself to the game. Two weeks later, the Arizona Diamondbacks summoned him for their Class AAA affiliate in Tucson. He made good on his promise to himself, going 11-0 with a 2.79 ERA.

Still, when the offseason came and he was a free agent again, he had little idea what to expect.

"It was tough," Bacsik said. "Going into the offseason, you think there are a few teams that I know don't like me. [You're thinking], 'The Nationals don't like me because they released me six months ago.' "

Yet by that point, the Nationals had hired former Arizona scouting director Mike Rizzo away from the Diamondbacks. Rizzo and Bob Boone, the Nationals' vice president of player development, called Bacsik constantly. "They were persistent," Bacsik said. He signed, and came to camp as a different version than what pitching coach Randy St. Claire saw in 2006.

"He was much more aggressive," St. Claire said. "He seemed much more confident, much more committed to what he was doing."

Still, when Patterson, Hill, Chico, Williams and Bergmann were named as the major league rotation, Bacsik was sent to Class AAA Columbus, and got the call when Bergmann went down with inflammation in his right elbow.

Simontacchi, too, thought he might be done with the game. After making 40 starts for St. Louis in 2003-04, then 13 relief appearances the following year, he underwent surgery to repair the labrum in his right shoulder. He didn't pitch in 2005, went to camp with the Chicago Cubs in 2006, but his shoulder wasn't ready. He ended up with Bridgeport of the independent Atlantic League, a long way from Busch Stadium and the Cardinals.

Simontacchi believes the entire experience -- flirting with the end of a career that was all he had known -- matured him.

"Getting back to the big leagues is definitely a blessing in my mind," he said. "But at the same time, I believe I did things the right way to get back here. Obviously, there are bumps in the road. Do I believe I should be here? Yes, I do. I believe I can pitch here. I believe I can be successful here. The second that goes away, the second you end up somewhere else."

A fate that could befall any of these men at any time. But tonight, when Dodgers right-hander Brad Penny -- off to one of the best starts in the National League -- takes the mound at RFK, Simontacchi will be there to oppose him. When Derek Lowe, a former 20-game winner with Boston, pitches Wednesday for the Dodgers, Bacsik will battle him. And when the series concludes Thursday, lefty Mark Hendrickson will face his fellow lefty, Bowie, a 32-year-old reliever not four years removed from ligament replacement surgery in his elbow.

This is the Nationals' rotation. For now, it is a winning one.

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