By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Barry Larkin's playing days are over, and he spends most of his time near his home in Orlando, where he is developing a post-baseball life and serves as a fringe member of the Washington Nationals' think tank. But sit with Larkin even for a minute, as many of the Nationals did yesterday before and during a 4-3 victory over Houston Astros, and it is apparent that after a stellar 19-season major league career, he can offer, as right fielder Austin Kearns said, "Everything."
Thus, it is Larkin's turn to play fix-it man for the Nationals, who have been one of the worst offensive teams in baseball this season. That they won last night was due so much to Dmitri Young. Their only consistent hitter drilled a three-run homer in the sixth inning, and that was the difference.
"He carries us," said lefty Mike Bacsik, who pitched effectively into the sixth, then allowed a combination of Saul Rivera, Jon Rauch and closer Chad Cordero to finish it off.
A player who can carry a team gets to the heart of what Larkin spent some time considering before the game. Larkin is in town for a few days at the behest of General Manager Jim Bowden, for whom he has served as a special assistant since 2005. The Nationals' lineup, from Larkin's viewpoint, lacks a man who can carry a team. "All the guys, with the exception of Dmitri, are fairly young," Larkin said.
Young went 2 for 3 and drilled a 1-0 curveball from Woody Williams to left to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead, raising his average to .339. "You want to get a chance in that situation to help your team," Young said by phone afterward, for he departed the clubhouse quickly. The other Nationals managed all of five hits, and Larkin believes the fact that they aren't playing with established veterans can affect their own performances.
"I think that's a lot of the issues that probably happen, at least from the offensive standpoint, because you don't have that one guy that you know can hit 30 [homers] and drive in 100 and surround him with guys that can just contribute," Larkin said.
Kearns, for instance, went 1 for 3 last night, continuing a sputtering season full of starts and stops. Felipe Lopez went 0 for 3 and made a throwing error that sparked the Astros' two-run sixth inning.
Larkin was a teammate to both those players in the final years of his stellar career as a shortstop with the Cincinnati Reds, a teammate of Young's from 1998 to 2001. But over the past three years, he has appeared occasionally in the Nationals' clubhouse, easily dropping into conversation with players, fitting into an ambiance that was once his office.
"He's up-front with you, but it's hard for him, because he's not that far from his playing," catcher Brian Schneider said. "You can tell sometimes he's itching to get out there."
Yet he comes brandishing opinions. It was a year and three days earlier that the Nationals acquired both Kearns and Lopez as the key pieces in an eight-player trade with the Reds. He understands the plight of those and other Nationals who are struggling as hitters during a massive rebuilding process.
"I believe you set your level of expectation, and if you expect to go out there and win, it's a totally different situation than if you expect to go out there and compete," Larkin said. "I think guys are resigned to the fact that this year, 'We're young. We're expecting to go out there and compete.' Guys kind of take that approach, almost."
Both Kearns and Lopez have been touted by the Nationals as players they expect to contribute on better teams in the future. Kearns signed an extension through 2009, with a club option for 2010, in the offseason, and Lopez is eligible for arbitration -- and thus, still Washington property -- following this season. Yet since arriving in Washington last year, Kearns is hitting .251, Lopez .258.
"I think they're both everyday players, and I think they're both guys that will get it done," Larkin said. "But I think they're complementary players. . . . Neither one of them will be a featured 30-[homer], 100-[RBI] guy."
That kind of honesty, Kearns said, is what Nationals players should expect from Larkin.
"He's not going to sugarcoat anything," Kearns said. "He's going to tell you what he thinks."
Last night, he watched as Ronnie Belliard hit a one-out single off Williams in the sixth. When third baseman Ryan Zimmerman came up, he peeked at Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who was playing back. Zimmerman dropped down a bunt.
"I'm not a big fan of that," Manager Manny Acta said, mostly because he expects Zimmerman, his third hitter, to drive in runs with power. Yet Zimmerman had a bunt single.
"You've got to pick your times to do it," Zimmerman said.
It got Young to the plate, and he provided the game-winner. And when Cordero recorded his 16th save with a 1-2-3 ninth, Young, Kearns and Lopez -- formerly teammates of Larkin, now just tutored by him -- gathered in the throng at midfield, celebrating.
"He can help," Kearns said. "People should listen while he's here, because he's just so smart."