By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007
They all know their records, and can recite them almost without thinking.
"I walked him," Chad Cordero said, "and he flew out. Twice. Like, deep."
"Hit him once," Mike Bacsik said. "Grounded to second, and popped him up."
They do not speak his name, but they know what is in the offing. Barry Bonds entered play last night with 754 home runs, one off Hank Aaron's all-time record. He had not homered in a week, flailing more often than not. Unless his form returns over the weekend -- and he hits two home runs at San Diego's spacious Petco Park -- Cordero, Bacsik and the rest of the Washington Nationals will arrive Sunday night in San Francisco, the most likely suspects to be part of history.
Bonds's quest is a two-part equation. Not only must he find a pitch he can work with -- and he hasn't been catching up with fastballs he used to drive routinely -- but he must also find a pitcher who can provide such a pitch. In theory, that should be much easier against the Nationals than his two most recent opponents, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Padres. The former ranks fourth in the National League in ERA, the latter first -- allowing a run fewer per game than the Nationals.
Moreover, the Nationals' rotation for their four-game series at AT&T Park next week sizes up like this: John Lannan, Bacsik, Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan. When they arrive in San Francisco next week, that group will have 118 major league starts, or one for roughly every 6 1/2 Bonds homers. Only five of the 12 active members of the Nationals' pitching staff have actually faced Bonds. His numbers against them are surprisingly poor -- 2 for 27 with three walks, a hit-by-pitch, a double and a homer.
Lannan, who at 22 is just more than half Bonds's age, gets the first shot. It will be his third major league start. Bonds has hit four home runs for every pitch Lannan has thrown in his "career" -- 185.
"I haven't thought about it," Lannan said, eyes wide, this week. "I mean, this is my first week in the big leagues. I guess I'll ask some of the older pitchers how I should feel about it."
What, then, would the older guys tell him?
"I've joked about it," said lefty reliever Ray King, a man who could be brought in specifically to face the left-handed hitting Bonds. "Maybe if I give it up, I can do the 'Tonight Show,' 'The Early Morning Show' and some sort of 'Evening Show' all in one day."
There is no consensus on how any of the Nationals feel about the prospect of being tagged with No. 756, the guy who will be on the highlight reel, neck craning to watch the flight of the ball, the one who will have to hold a separate postgame news conference to go over what he threw and why he threw it and what it means to be part of it all.
"I don't want to be the guy," said reliever Chris Schroder, who has never faced Bonds. "Nobody wants to be the guy."
"If you are the guy, it means you're going down in history, too," Cordero said. Yet for Cordero, the Nationals' closer, the homer could mean more than just No. 756. "For me, it might suck, because I'd probably be giving up the lead or a tie," he said. "But still, you're in the record books, too."
Odds are that Brian Schneider will be the catcher when Bonds comes to the plate against this rag-tag staff, the guy who could call the fateful pitch. Schneider is a baseball history buff, a collector of jerseys and memorabilia and cards. He was the catcher both times Bonds homered against the Nationals since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, once off of John Patterson on a low-and-inside slider, once off Livan Hernandez on another low-and-inside pitch. Both came at RFK Stadium. Both landed in the upper deck.
"It just proves how tough he is to pitch to," Schneider said. "I know he's scuffling a little bit now, and we'll get our reports on what he's been scuffling on. . . .
"But in the past, it's been pitch away, and when you come in, make sure you get it in there."
Nationals Manager Manny Acta said he will not bow to pressure either way, whether it be to pitch to Bonds or to walk him. "We're not going to change anything because we don't want to be part of the record," Acta said.
So if, as Acta said, the Nationals "allow the situation to dictate what we do," expect to see King at some point. Of those 31 times up against the current Nationals' staff, 18 have come against King. The 33-year-old has pitched in the majors since 1999. Each year, he is hired for one reason: Retire left-handed hitters, be they feeble or fearsome.
"I take pride in it," King said.
On Aug. 19, 2003, while pitching for Atlanta, King said he started Bonds with a breaking ball. The approach didn't work out. Leading off the bottom of the 10th inning , King fell behind in the count, and Bonds hit his fourth pitch for a game-ending home run.
"So I try, mostly, sinkers in," King said, "and fastballs away. And if I get ahead, then I'll go to the breaking ball."
That approach has worked remarkably well. King has walked Bonds twice. He retired him the other 15 times.
"Knock wood," King said, reaching behind him for his locker and tapping twice.
That, then, might be the Nationals' best approach. They have four games to deal with the chaos that goes along with Bonds's pursuit. And after they leave town, they'll know -- if he hits it -- who among them will be on that videotape for perpetuity.
"We know whoever gives it up," Acta said, "it's probably going to be the only thing they're remembered for."