By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007
MINNEAPOLIS, June 9 -- In Sin City -- a long way geographically and emotionally from the heartland here -- there exists the concept of "The Lock." Dig deep into your pockets, wager as much as you want, but be certain to put money down, because when a bet is so definite, everybody wins.
There is, of course, no betting in baseball. But for entertainment purposes, folks have long whispered about the concept that is the direct opposite of that sure bet known in Las Vegas. It is "The Reverse Lock."
Take, for example, Saturday night at the Metrodome. Left-hander Johan Santana, he of the two Cy Young awards, took the mound for the Minnesota Twins. Right-hander Levale Speigner, he of the 14.44 ERA in four career starts, opposed him for the Washington Nationals.
The final: Nationals 3, Twins 1. The Reverse Lock in full effect.
Talk about your unexpected developments. Ryan Zimmerman provided all the scoring the Nationals would need with a three-run homer in the third off Santana, Speigner pitched six innings of two-hit ball, and relievers Ray King, Jesus Colome, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero shut out the Twins the rest of the way. With that, the Nationals' nine-game road trip is off to a 2-0 start.
"We got out-pitched tonight," Minnesota Manager Ron Gardenhire said, "if that was possible."
The list of unlikely elements from this one could fill a page. Speigner had spent his entire professional career in the Twins' farm system before the Nationals' selected him in the Rule 5 draft last December. That procedure is meant to offer minor leaguers a chance. Rule 5 dictates that if the Nationals wanted to send Speigner to the minors -- which his numbers suggest would be a good idea -- they would first have to offer him back to the Twins.
Speigner's battery-mate Saturday night provided a nice little twist, too, for it was Jesus Flores -- another Rule 5 choice. That combination of rookies who weren't protected by their former clubs beat a battery of Santana and Joe Mauer, the reigning American League batting champion.
"This is the first time I caught him this year," said Flores, a right-handed hitter put in the lineup to face the lefty Santana. "For sure, it's a very special win."
There was no evidence -- none whatsoever -- that Speigner had this in him. His four major league starts had lasted an average of less than 3 2/3 innings. He had given up at least four earned runs in each of them. Given that, Manager Manny Acta had plenty of reason to worry -- until he started pitching.
"Today was an outstanding performance by him," Acta said. "I thought it was going to get to him a little bit, pitching against his old team and with 40,000 people and against Johan Santana. But he saved the best for today."
But before Speigner's best work was the work that went into it. After Speigner was victimized by poor defense in his last start against San Diego -- when he gave up six runs in the first inning -- the Nationals moved him back a day in the rotation, giving pitching coach Randy St. Claire two bullpen sessions to work with him between starts. In those workouts, St. Claire harped on Speigner to speed up his delivery. He also told him that he was cradling his breaking balls in such a way that he was tipping them off.
"They see it," St. Claire said. "He'll throw one, and then he throws another one -- and he doesn't get away with it."
It happened in the second, when Justin Morneau crushed a 2-2 curveball for a solo homer. But from that point forward, Speigner retired 15 of the last 17 men he faced.
" 'Saint' just keeps on working with me," Speigner said. "It's tireless. I know he gets tired of some of the mistakes I make, but he keeps coming to the park and we keep working and working and working."
Zimmerman got in the one swing the Nationals needed. After Nook Logan reached on an error and Cristian Guzman -- the former Twin whose 3-for-4 night raised his average to .352 -- hit a single to center, Zimmerman faced Santana, who struck him out in the first. He worked the count to 1-2, and Santana went to his change-up. Zimmerman didn't miss it, sending it deep into the stands in left for a 3-1 lead.
"He just made that one mistake," Zimmerman said, "and I put a good swing on it."
With that, the list of Reverse Locks for the Nationals grows. They have now won two games started by San Diego's Jake Peavy, tagged Atlanta's John Smoltz to two of his losses, and beaten Philadelphia's Cole Hamels, who's 8-2.
"You look at some of our matchups, and a lot of people say, 'You got no chance,' " King said. "But look at the guys we beat. . . . We hear the broadcasters from other teams saying, 'This is where they can take off, with the Washington Nationals coming in.' I think now, people are going to stop saying that."
Because if Levale Speigner can beat Johan Santana, there are no safe bets.