By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
ATLANTA, June 25 -- By this point, the Washington Nationals need some sort of spreadsheet to keep track of their players. Perhaps a daily roll call instituted by Manager Manny Acta. "Bergmann!" Acta could yell in the clubhouse. "Here!" the right-hander would reply -- for now. "Guzman!" Acta would follow, and the room would fall silent.
That was the daily toll for the Nationals on Monday. On the day Jason Bergmann returned to a major league mound for the first time in six weeks, shortstop Cristian Guzman had surgery to repair ligaments in his left thumb. One had a season start anew, the other had a season screech to a halt. Somewhere in the middle of it all the Nationals lost a 4-1 decision to the Atlanta Braves -- one sparked by seven solid innings from right-hander Tim Hudson and four RBI from catcher Brian McCann. But who can keep track of that anymore?
"You look down the list of every team," team president Stan Kasten said. "Two guys, three guys, three guys, two guys. And then you'd get to us -- 12 guys."
Well, it's not 12 anymore. Just nine. But 13 different guys on the disabled list at some point in the season. And while this beat-up bunch has done well to hold itself together -- going 23-19 since May 11 -- it can, at times, be hard to imagine how they will do it much longer. Bergmann, who hadn't pitched since nearly no-hitting the Braves on May 14, had watched from the bench for the better part of the month, then had two rehabilitation assignments to prepare for his return.
"It's good to be back in the mix," he said. "It's been tough watching the guys."
Heck, it's been tough being the guys lately.
"Thank God that these guys have given us the effort that they have given us, and we're still surviving," Acta said. "But yeah, we have encountered every worst possible scenario. I hear a lot of teams complain about their injuries and stuff, and I guess ours is not such a big deal because we're not supposed to win."
Monday, the scenario involved two key components to decide the game -- Hudson, who allowed just one run and struck out nine; and McCann, who not only drove in the only run off Bergmann with a two-out single in the fourth, but clubbed the game-changing two-out, three-run homer in the sixth off reliever Billy Traber.
That shot, though, came after Bergmann had completed his 76-pitch outing, one in which he lasted only four innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter so the Nationals could ease him back into the majors. But even after he labored through a 27-pitch fourth that prevented him from going further, the reviews were unanimously positive.
"I felt real good," Bergmann said.
"In my opinion," added catcher Brian Schneider, "he's just going to get better every time out."
"He looked nice and loose tonight," Acta said. "I was happy."
Bergmann had been out with inflammation in his elbow. But he said once he had fluid drained last month, it felt as if someone had been holding his arm tightly, and then released it. He threw all of his pitches, and the club expects that he will increase his pitch count by perhaps 10 or 15 in his next start, over the weekend at Pittsburgh.
The game, though, was not decided with Bergmann on the mound. Rather, it came after Traber worked through a perfect fifth, striking out two men, and then started the sixth. The lefty is one of those players who arrived when another man went down with an injury, and he has been quietly effective -- or at least his 1.59 ERA entering Monday would show that.
"Deceiving," Traber said, and he pointed to one number -- the nearly 82 percent of inherited runners he had allowed to score.
In this situation, though, there were no runners to inherit. Still, even with Edgar Renteria's one-out double, Traber got Chipper Jones to fly to left in a game the Braves led only 1-0. Then came Andruw Jones. If there is one player to point to and discuss the Braves' lack of offense lately -- they had scored just one run in their previous five games -- it is the slugging center fielder, who entered Monday hitting an astonishing .199.
"Despite Andruw's struggles," Acta said, "he still has twice as many home runs and more RBIs than McCann."
So the strategy: Be cautious. McCann, a left-handed hitter, was next, and lefties were hitting just .143 off Traber. "That's Billy's specialty," Acta said.
Traber missed with a curveball to Jones, then with another. He tried a changeup, but missed again. Acta, then, called for an intentional ball four, bringing up McCann. Traber fell behind 2-0, got a strike, then threw a curveball down and in.
"Was it where I wanted it?" Traber asked. "I didn't want it out of the ballpark."
That, though, is where McCann sent it, the three-run homer that made it 4-0. And with Hudson against the Nationals, that would be about it. The right-hander is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA against Washington this season. What did the Nationals think of him?
"Same thing we always think of Hudson," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Hard sinker. Good slider. Good split. A tough pitcher, every time."
Monday night, the Nationals hope that's what they got back -- Jason Bergmann, a guy who might be a tough pitcher every time. Afterward, Bergmann was encouraged both by the way he threw and the way he felt.
"There's no pain there to feel," Bergmann said.
So check him off, and move to the next man. But don't be surprised if, when the clubhouse is finally accounted for, there isn't some new bump, some unexpected bruise, that is revealed.