By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 9 -- It was the one moment that will be determined worthy of highlights nationwide. Barry Bonds, pinch hitter, against Jon Rauch, setup man. Eighth inning, two men on, one out, Bonds's San Francisco Giants trailing Rauch's Washington Nationals by two runs.
"It was a pivotal point in the game," Rauch said.
To a baseball-watching public flogged by tales of Bonds's chase for the all-time home run record -- a chase that ended with his 756th homer Tuesday night -- the result might have seemed disappointing, because Rauch got Bonds to pop up in foul territory. But for the Nationals, it was just another out from a stalwart bullpen that contributed to a 3-1 victory under a sunny Thursday afternoon sky at AT&T Park.
Rauch used that moment on his way to a scoreless eighth. It followed an erratic, but ultimately effective, outing from starter Joel Hanrahan, who pitched into the sixth and gave up one run. That was possible because Saul Rivera faced one batter and elicited a double-play ball to end that frame, Luis Ayala pitched a perfect seventh and Chad Cordero a scoreless ninth for his 25th save.
Add that up, and some ridiculous numbers result. The Nationals' pitching staff -- who could be used in most cities as extras in police lineups -- now has an ERA of 3.67 in 37 games since June 28. That is the best in baseball over that span.
This from a team that invited 37 pitchers to spring training when it needed to find four members of a starting rotation. This from a team that found those starters but then watched four of them -- including Opening Day starter John Patterson and burgeoning workhorse Shawn Hill -- go down in May with injuries. This from a team that now has a rotation of three rookies and two players signed in the offseason as minor league free agents.
"It's pretty amazing," Cordero said.
But as surprisingly effective as those starters have been, it is the bullpen that has provided the Nationals with a backbone. Yes, there are times when it doesn't come through -- such as Monday night, when Cordero allowed a couple of ground-ball singles for a run in the ninth and Ayala gave up the game-winning hit in the 12th. But Manager Manny Acta said he simply can't be critical of his relievers in such a situation because when he provides them with two things -- the lead and the ball -- he so often is rewarded.
"I have that much confidence in them," Acta said. "That's why, whenever they don't get it done like three days ago, all I can say is, 'They're human,' because they've been fantastic for us."
With 3 2/3 scoreless innings against the feeble Giants offense Thursday, the bullpen has 412 innings on the year. Only the Texas Rangers' bullpen has logged more innings. Nationals relievers have thrown 6,604 pitches, an average of 57 per game. Yet somehow, their arms are intact, and their ERA since July 1 is 2.04, best in the majors.
"We enjoy coming to the park every day," Rauch said.
And when they arrive, they know there's a good chance they'll pitch. Rivera, who started the year with Class AAA Columbus, made his 60th appearance Thursday. Only one pitcher in baseball has thrown in more games. That would be Rauch, whose eighth-inning effort Thursday was his 62nd appearance. No major league closer has pitched in more games than Cordero's 57.
So before each game, much care goes into setting up the relievers. Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire determine beforehand who's available and for how long. Acta has a policy of not allowing anyone to pitch more than three days in a row, and in some cases -- such as that of Ayala, who missed all of last season after elbow surgery -- he has to be cautious.
"Those guys," Acta said, "sometimes I have to fight them off."
Thursday, he used them to fight off the Giants. Washington took a 3-1 lead in the fifth when Hanrahan hit a one-out double -- his third extra-base hit in his three major league starts -- and Felipe Lopez followed with a homer to left, his second of the series.
When Hanrahan came out in the sixth, he went to the clubhouse, and General Manager Jim Bowden joked about his hit. "It's going to be the game-winning run," Hanrahan said.
That's the feeling about the bullpen. Acta called Rivera's double play ball to Kevin Frandsen "the key" to the game, and Cordero called Rivera "a key part of that bullpen."
And then there was Rauch's contribution against Bonds. The crowd of 41,555 rose when Bonds appeared in the on-deck circle, and St. Claire went to the mound to relay the plan.
"Don't try to be macho," Acta said, "or try to trick him inside."
So at 1-0, Rauch went away with a 92-mph fastball, and Bonds popped it up.
"Obviously, [I was] pretty pumped at that point," Rauch said. "It gives you a little more determination to get the next guys."
He did, on a fake-to-third pickoff play that caught Pedro Feliz off first. Just another way for the Nationals' bullpen to fend off yet another rally.