By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007
NEW YORK, July 28 -- Joel Hanrahan climbed a major league mound for the first time Saturday night, a cherished event that has become routine for the Washington Nationals. Three other Nationals starters already had debuted as a major leaguer this season, including John Lannan two days prior.
So Manager Manny Acta understands how this works. "I know he's going to be a little rattled at the beginning," he said. "I just hope he can control his emotions enough to give us a chance."
If Hanrahan carried any nerves, he ignored them; he even smoked a triple in his first big league at-bat. By the time Acta figured Hanrahan would be settling in, his exquisite first five innings nearly unraveled. But the Nationals' slumbering offense awoke in time to salvage the game and beat the New York Mets, 6-5, which saved them from being swept after the Mets won, 3-1, in the first game of a day-night doubleheader.
After seven seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, Hanrahan signed as a minor league free agent this offseason with the Nationals. He struggled through injuries and trying to command his fastball and never received his chance. Washington is long on those, though, so Hanrahan waited his turn. Then he made it count.
"Couldn't ask for much better, I guess," said Hanrahan, who pitched in front of 28 friends and family members. He allowed one hit through five innings and struck out seven, mixing breaking balls with his mid-90s fastball. Catcher Brian Schneider noticed an improvement in his stuff, more pop on his fastball and sharper break to his curve.
"We all knew he had that good arm," Acta said. "If he can command that fastball, with that change-up and that breaking ball that he has, he can be successful up here."
Indeed, Hanrahan ran into trouble when he left a fastball too high to Carlos Delgado in the sixth. Delgado launched the pitch, which was supposed to be low and away, to the opposite field and into the bleachers in left, trying the score at 3. "It would have been a lot cooler if I didn't give up that home run," Hanrahan said.
Both Hanrahan and Game 1 starter Tim Redding pitched well enough to win, emblematic of the Nationals' makeshift yet resilient pitching staff lately. That staff, with new faces appearing on a near daily basis, can be praised for keeping the Nationals competitive during a grinder of a road trip to New York and Philadelphia, two tough National League East opponents.
"You keep knocking us down, we keep bouncing back up," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "Throwing people out there, and just ruining the lives of advance scouts everywhere."
Five days into its trip, Washington's results have been mixed, yet encouraging. The Nationals have played six games on the road trip and lost three, but all of those came by one or two runs. They have also beaten twice the team widely regarded as the National League's best.
"Everybody's counting us out," Redding said. "They're saying we're not a big league ballclub and we're going to be losing some important pieces during the trade deadline. The way I look at it, I don't think they're looking to just unload people. We're playing these teams that are in division races and they're supposed to be winning. We're not just rolling over."
Credit for that belongs largely to the pitching rotation, most of which began the season in the minor leagues. Hanrahan became Washington's 13th starter this season, a major-league high. Four of the five pitchers who began the season in the rotation are no longer there. Thursday's starter, Lannan, began the season in Class A. Yet the Nationals starters have produced an ERA below 4.00 over the past 10 days.
"They've been doing it all year," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "To have four of your five guys you left camp with not pitching any more and have the people step up who pitched the way they have, I think that shows how tough they are, and what kind of people they are."
Said Acta: "Can't say enough. Everybody that goes out there, it seems like it's getting contagious."
For Hanrahan, it even carried over to the batter's box. In his first at-bat, he clobbered a Mike Pelfrey pitch to left-center. Lastings Milledge played Hanrahan shallow, and his liner screamed by him.
The ball scooted all the way to the wall, and he became only the fourth pitcher since 1974 to triple in his first big league at-bat. The Nationals' dugout called for the ball, saving it for the 25-year-old.
While the hit carried the most significance, Ryan Langerhans delivered the day's biggest hit. In the eighth with one out, Mets lefty Pedro Feliciano intentionally walked Tony Batista to get to Langerhans, who entered hitting .154 against lefties. He poked a single to left, plating Austin Kearns with the go-ahead run.
The Nationals would score two more runs in the third, and they needed them. In the Mets' half of the eighth, Delgado delivered another RBI single off of Jon Rauch, and later that inning the tying run reached third with two outs. But Rauch induced a Ramon Castro, with the count full, to hit a sharp grounder to Felipe Lopez and sneak out of the jam.
Chad Cordero closed the door with a 1-2-3 ninth, including a fly out from the pinch-hitting Tom Glavine. After an uneventful first game, during which the Nationals collected only three hits, including a solo homer from Felipe Lopez, Washington had dramatically won the second.
The star, of course, was Hanrahan. In the clubhouse, Kasten teased Lannan, whose locker is next to Hanrahan, for not lasting as long Hanrahan did in his first start. Then Kasten exchanged a fist bump with Hanrahan, the game ball resting behind him in his locker.
"I just had fun out there," Hanrahan said. "I thought I was all right tonight."