By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007
TORONTO, June 16 -- The spot in which Levale Speigner found himself Saturday afternoon is not the spot he figured to occupy a few months ago, not the spot in which the Washington Nationals wanted to place him at all this year. When the season began, the Nationals preferred to coddle their rookie pitcher, allowing him a few innings in a blowout here, a batter or two in the sixth inning a few days later -- situations in which he might succeed, when only close followers of the team would notice one way or the other.
Now, Speigner is starting those games, creating those blowouts. Thus, a long rookie season grew longer Saturday, when the Toronto Blue Jays hammered Speigner in a 7-3 victory over the Nationals. Washington's hitters struck out a season-high 14 times, and Toronto right-hander Shaun Marcum did what Speigner couldn't -- placed his underwhelming fastball and retired hitters with off-speed pitches, striking out 11 in his seven-inning outing.
Still, for the Nationals, the afternoon was defined by Speigner. His outing shared so many qualities with so many of his previous five starts. He didn't get out of the fourth inning. He allowed 10 hits and seven runs. His ERA climbed to 11.79 as a starter. He looked essentially like what he is: a 26-year-old trying to make a jump -- not only from the minors to the majors, but from the bullpen to the rotation -- before he is equipped to do it.
"Is it asking a lot of a kid who didn't know he was going to make the team until the last couple of days of spring training?" veteran reliever Ray King asked. "Sure. But it's not like he doesn't have the ability to do it. He just has to learn how to do it. That's what he's going through."
He will not learn in some out-of-the-way, minor league burg with a few thousand people in the stands. The Nationals selected him in the Rule 5 draft from Minnesota, and any attempt to send him to the minors would expose him to other teams. For now, he won't even learn in the bullpen, because four-fifths of the Nationals' Opening Day rotation is on the disabled list, and the rules require a starting pitcher.
"They didn't want to set him up for any kind of failure," catcher Brian Schneider said. "You don't want him to, in a way, regress. But that's the negative. The positive is he's going to be more experienced, and he's a tough kid."
Tough or not, it's to the point where no one in the Nationals' clubhouse would think less of Speigner if he yearned for the ailing to get healthy in a hurry so he could head back to the bullpen, so he could grow more confident in the role for which he was signed up -- long reliever. Speigner shrugged off that notion.
"I can't worry about that," he said. "To be successful, I have to straighten things out no matter what. The bullpen isn't going to help me get a better slider."
Which is one of the many things he needs right now. Asked to describe his 3 1/3 -inning outing, Speigner said, "No off-speed." That, then, would be a significant problem.
Speigner, listed generously at 5 feet 11, isn't an overpowering pitcher. But as a career reliever -- 115 of his 140 minor league appearances came out of the bullpen -- he never fully developed a third pitch to follow his fastball and his slider. He occasionally throws a curveball, but when his slider deserts him as it did Saturday, he must rely on a fastball that he can't blow by people.
"I was pitching with one pitch," he said. "That hurt."
Thus, the Blue Jays had a run after just five pitches, the time it took for Alex Rios to crush a triple and Vernon Wells to single him home. Wells, who drove in four runs on the day, followed with a two-run homer in the third, an inning in which Frank Thomas put the Blue Jays up 5-1 with a two-run single. All of Toronto's runs in the frame came with two outs.
"I think he set the tone for himself from the first hitter of the game, hanging an 0-2 slider," Manager Manny Acta said. "He made way too many mistakes."
In the fourth, more mistakes led to two more runs, an early hook, a slow walk back to the dugout and the responsibility for what became a 7-2 deficit. Speigner's outing made the one positive development of the day -- 4 2/3 hitless innings from relievers Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome and King -- completely irrelevant.
That and the fact that the Nationals couldn't string hits together against Marcum. They got a solo homer from Dmitri Young in the second, another from Ryan Zimmerman in the fourth, but little else.
"I think we just didn't swing the bats that good," right fielder Austin Kearns said.
That, though, could change in the series finale Sunday, a game the Nationals must win to avoid a sweep here and to finish off a nine-game road trip with a solid 6-3 mark. The hitters have a chance to right themselves within 24 hours.
Speigner doesn't have that luxury. His next turn in the rotation would fall on Thursday's off day, and Acta said the club hasn't decided whether to skip him. His outing last week, Acta reminded, was a six-inning victory over Minnesota's Johan Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner.
"It's frustrating going out having a good one and then following up with what happened today," Speigner said. "But that's part of it. That's part of my learning process."
A process that is only in the early stages of its development.