On 'Big Train's' Day, Bacsik Keeps Rolling

Mike Bacsik
Mike Bacsik continues to impress in the second half of the season, earning his third straight win for the Nationals. (Richard A. Lipski - The Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007

As the numbers flashed across the scoreboard in right field between innings -- 417 wins, 110 shutouts, a 2.17 ERA -- Washington Nationals hitting coach Lenny Harris was in the ear of his team's manager, Manny Acta. For goodness' sake, was Harris's sentiment. The Nationals' entire team -- which has featured 23 pitchers this season -- doesn't have a single complete game all year. Walter Johnson had 531 for his career, not to mention 38 in one season.

"That's history right there," the Nationals' resident historian, first baseman Dmitri Young, said afterward.

Such was the backdrop for the Nationals' 7-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds last night, a win that finished off a three-game sweep, featured seven solid innings from lefty Mike Bacsik -- as polar opposite a pitcher as there could be from the fire-balling Johnson -- as well as a 3-for-5 night from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who drove in three runs.

But in a town that is just reacquainting itself with its baseball history, the 100th anniversary of Johnson's first appearance for the Washington Senators brought a chance for the team and its fans to reflect on "The Big Train's" Hall of Fame career. The club wore white hats, replicas from the 1927 season, the last of Johnson's 21 years in the majors, all with Washington.

Bacsik's résumé: 36 major league appearances, and last night he nailed down his 10th win. Just 407 to go.

"Those are some of the records that will never -- never ever -- be broken," Acta said afterward. "I just don't see anybody else again winning 400 games and doing the kind of stuff he did."

The Nationals, for now, are content doing what they're doing. They took all three games from the Reds in part because they are starting to string some hits together. Last night's performance featured six doubles, including two from Ronnie Belliard, and they had 14 doubles in the three-game set.

Their formula all year has been fairly simple: Score five runs, and win. They did so all three games against the Reds, and in such games, they are 30-6.

The problem has been getting to those five runs. For so many of those years Johnson played in Washington, he had a lousy team behind him, no true hitters to score him runs. This starting rotation has been thrown together, a collection of career minor leaguers, guys getting what might be their final chance. There is not a young Johnson among them, and they need support. The Nationals, meanwhile, have scored fewer runs than any team in baseball.

"We don't care about the criticism," Young said. "If we worried about what people say, we wouldn't be in this ballgame."

They are, slowly, starting to turn things around. No piece of the offense is more important than Zimmerman, the 22-year-old who was put in the unenviable position of being the team's go-to offensive performer in his second major league season. Thus, he repeated a refrain that he has said, quite earnestly, often this season: "I'm learning."

That came after he hit a hard single in the first, a play on which Felipe Lopez was thrown out at the plate when third base coach Tim Tolman sent him home. Zimmerman followed with an RBI double in the third and a two-run single in the fourth. By the end of the night, Zimmerman's average was at a modest .265. Yet that's the highest it has been since April 8.

"I just try to do what the situation dictates," Zimmerman said. "I feel like if you do that, your numbers are going to be where they need to be by the end of the year anyway. But is it more fun when you're putting them up? Of course."

The performance is indicative, Zimmerman and Acta said, of a more disciplined approach at the plate. As he scuffled through the first half of the season, Zimmerman too often swung at pitches out of the strike zone, particularly sliders. Now he is taking those pitches. His on-base percentage before the break was a disappointing .302. Since, it is .386.

"It's when he gets out of his approach, chasing pitches early in the count and falling into their pitching plan and stuff like that," Acta said. "When he's patient and getting his pitches, regardless of who's hitting behind him, he's going to put up the numbers."

Bacsik, too, is beginning to put up numbers. He allowed three hits, all in the second -- a homer to Adam Dunn, a single to Edwin Encarnacion, a two-run homer to Alex Gonzalez.

"I made three bad pitches in a row," Bacsik said. He didn't make many other mistakes. He retired 16 of the final 17 men he faced, a performance that was good for his third win in a row. In his four starts since the all-star break, he is 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA. He was asked if he felt he was proving anything to his employers, who called him up in May only out of desperation.

"I'm also proving it to me," Bacsik said.

Walter Johnson? No, not close. But for the Nationals -- developing a bit of a rhythm in the second half -- there might be some decent numbers of their own to put on the right field scoreboard at RFK.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company