By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007
NEW YORK, July 27 -- Long before bullpen sessions or batting practice Friday afternoon, Manny Acta and Randy St. Claire sat down for a little game of "If this, then that." If the Washington Nationals' starter that night at Shea Stadium, Mike Bacsik, faltered early, what could they do? Where would the manager and the pitching coach turn? They stared at their pieces of paper, charts showing the names that make up baseball's most overworked bullpen.
"I tell you what," Acta said afterward. "It could've gotten ugly if Bacsik would've been out of the game early."
Bacsik, though, pulled out some lipstick and made a potentially hideous situation quite lovely, beating the New York Mets, 6-2, with seven efficient innings. He allowed eight hits and didn't strike out anybody, but walked just one and gave up two runs.
He was backed up, too, by an offense that produced four doubles in the second inning and received solo homers from Ryan Church and Austin Kearns. And when Luis Ayala pitched perfect eighth and ninth innings, Acta's disaster preparedness plan could be stowed away.
"He gave me even more than I was hoping for," Acta said. "He gave us seven innings, and everybody knows the condition of our bullpen after those games in Philadelphia. Just gave us a huge, huge lift."
The game was played in the context of those around it. The Nationals' bullpen was still reeling from a 14-inning game Wednesday against the Phillies, not to mention the fact that their starters combined to throw 11 1/3 innings over the three-game series in Philadelphia. Greeting the Nationals on Saturday is a day-night doubleheader, one which will be concluded when right-hander Joel Hanrahan -- who will be called up from Class AAA Columbus later in the day -- will make his major league debut.
So when Acta and St. Claire, his pitching coach, looked over their sheets, there were more players they wanted to avoid than they wanted to use.
Closer Chad Cordero could have pitched, but Friday would have been his third straight appearance, and because Acta desperately wants to avoid using relievers four straight days, Cordero would have been unavailable for either game of the doubleheader. Same for setup man Jon Rauch. Right-hander Saul Rivera might have chipped in with an inning, but he had thrown three frames on Wednesday.
Those guys and others have combined to throw more innings than any bullpen in baseball this season. So the conclusion on Friday afternoon: Cross your fingers, look to the sky -- and hope Bacsik came through.
"I'm a pitcher," Bacsik said. "I know how it would be if I'd thrown three out of four days, and I knew a doubleheader's coming up and [they have] a couple new guys starting for us. But it worked out great. I'm happy I was able to give the bullpen a rest tonight."
The offense gave Bacsik a bit of a rest, too, by pummeling Mets starter Jorge Sosa, who served as Exhibit A of why New York General Manager Omar Minaya described his priorities before the trade deadline with one word: "Pitching."
Sosa gave up that slew of doubles in the second, started by Dmitri Young and Church, finished by Brian Schneider and Nook Logan. With that, the Nationals had a 3-0 lead.
"Just seemed like double, double, double," Church said, "and here we go."
Church's homer, his first since June 12 in Baltimore -- 116 at-bats earlier -- came with two outs in the third and put the Nationals up 4-1. Kearns's shot clanged off the foul pole in left to lead off the sixth, and Sosa's night was done. He is now 1-5 with a 7.00 ERA in his last seven starts, a major reason the Mets would like to add a starter before Tuesday's deadline.
From there, Bacsik took over. He can overpower nobody, and he often says -- even after his best outings -- that his opponents missed hittable pitches. "We got away with some pitches tonight," Schneider said.
None was more significant than in the fifth, with the Nationals up 4-1. With runners on the corners, Mets shortstop Jose Reyes -- a former teammate with Bacsik on the Mets -- scalded a liner toward left field, a ball that looked as if it might score both runs and give the Mets significant momentum.
"That was going to be a double -- or possibly a triple, with Reyes's speed," Bacsik said.
But just as before the ball took off for the corner, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman leaped straight up, snared it, somehow, and then plunged back to earth. He then lunged toward the third base bag to double up Green.
"It was close," Zimmerman said, but Green was ruled safe.
Still, major damage was avoided, not only to the Nationals in this one game, but to their pitching staff for days to come. When Hanrahan is activated, he'll become the 23rd pitcher the Nationals have used this year. (Winston Abreu, Levale Speigner, and Ryan Wagner, where have you gone?)
But when Acta and St. Claire get to the ballpark Saturday for the beginning of a long day, they will have no repeat meeting. Ayala will have the day off, Bacsik will rest after his win -- and everybody else will be available.