By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007
NEW YORK, July 29 -- Manny Acta has told Billy Traber to study the careers of left-handed relief specialists, mentioning Jesse Orosco and Tony Fossas by name. The Washington Nationals' manager sees Traber's future as a pitcher who records one or two pivotal outs before retreating to the clubhouse, not as an innings-eating starter.
But "it's not about what they want," Traber said. "It's about what they need." Injuries have forced the Nationals into an all-hands-on-deck rotation and on Sunday, Traber's turn came. He could not escape the fourth inning against the New York Mets, the team that drafted him, in a 5-0 loss shortened to five innings by rain, which fell from the first pitch to the last.
Since Washington receives a much-needed day off Monday, Traber will head back to the bullpen, available to pitch again as early as Wednesday, Acta said. Traber started only one other game this season, lasting four innings in a loss on July 20. Acta hopes Traber can resume his bullpen role for the rest of the season.
"I do whatever they tell me," Traber said. "I don't really care either way, as long as they want me."
Traber's recent history supports Acta. Last August, Traber defeated Tom Glavine in his first outing against his former organization. Five days later, Traber out-pitched John Smoltz in another victory. He has made six starts since, losing four and winning none of them. His ERA in those six starts is 9.38.
Traber hasn't exactly inspired fear in opposing hitters when he charges out of the bullpen gate, either. He's made 10 relief appearances since June 14, and the Nationals have lost each one. He's inherited 16 runners this season, and 10 have scored.
Still, his ERA from the bullpen this season is 4.34, improvement enough over his work as a starter to suggest if Traber has a future with the Nationals, it's as a reliever.
"He's better suited to pitch out of the 'pen as a left-handed specialist," Acta said. "That's a problem when he starts. Once hitters get more than one look, two, three times through the lineup, it gets tough for him. I believe that he's a situational lefty, bullpen guy. He knows that."
In Traber's final start for the foreseeable future ("a cameo appearance," Acta called it), he struggled from his first batter. Jose Reyes ripped his second pitch to left center, and once Ryan Langerhans bobbled it slightly, Reyes turned it into an easy double. Lastings Milledge followed with a sharp single, and the Mets had scored the only run they would need before Traber recorded an out.
After chipping in another run in the third, the Mets crushed Traber in the fourth. Ramon Castro delivered the most decisive blow, nearly striking the oversized apple behind the center field fence that appears when Mets drill home runs. It rose and flashed as Castro circled the bases.
It was ballpark kitsch that Traber at one time expected to see throughout his career from the home dugout at Shea Stadium. The Mets drafted Traber in the first round with the 16th overall pick in 2000, but he never made the majors with New York.
He faced the Mets for the first time last season, but on Sunday he pitched at Shea for the first time. He insisted he felt no nerves. "It's always cool coming to New York," Traber said. The calm demeanor did little to help his results. In his 3 2/3 innings, Traber allowed five runs on eight hits.
"I just wasn't very sharp, pretty much," Traber said. "That's not a team you can get behind, or they're going to hurt you. They did."
Traber could learn from John Maine, his counterpart Sunday. Maine, a former Baltimore Oriole and Fredericksburg native, allowed one hit and no walks, pumping strikes the entire game. The second batter of the game, Ronnie Belliard flared a single to left center, and no other National reached base.
Dmitri Young rested, which made Belliard, at .299, the Nationals' top hitter in the lineup. Batting leadoff was Felipe Lopez (.239). Replacing Young at first base and batting fifth was Tony Batista (.214).
So the Nationals' lineup, even if the rain subsided and the game lasted nine innings, wasn't likely to erase a five-run deficit. The Nationals left Shea badly beaten, with a gun-metal gray sky spitting rain, but optimism remained for Manny Acta, as it always does.
Over a seven-game road trip against the Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals went 3-4, Sunday's loss the only game out of their grasp. The last five games had been started by pitchers who began the season in the minor leagues, and two of those starters were making their debut.
"We have to look at it that way," Acta said. "It was a good road trip for us."