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Nationals' Bullpen Suffers a Tough Seventh
Diamondbacks 11, Nationals 4

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

PHOENIX, Aug. 10 -- After Matt Chico walked six men in his excruciating five-inning start, and after the Washington Nationals came through with a three-home-run inning against old friend Livan Hernandez to tie the Arizona Diamondbacks, their stingy bullpen responded with a seventh inning in which the strike zone and the pitches they threw appeared to be magnetic opposites.

The key inning in the Diamondbacks' 11-4 victory over the Nationals on Friday night at Chase Field -- Arizona's 16th win in 19 outings -- began with Saul Rivera on the mound. The details are grisly and may not be suitable for family viewing, so shield the eyes of children before reading further.

Here they are: walk, walk, sacrifice bunt, intentional walk, two-run single, pitching change, walk, two-run single, pitching change, groundout to score a run.

That would be five runs on two hits and four walks, and a game started by players traded for each other last year -- Chico, the rookie left-hander and former Diamondback farmhand, and Hernandez, the onetime Washington ace -- finished with an unusually poor performance from Rivera, who was charged with four of the runs in the seventh. Tack on another run charged to lefty Ray King and a two-run homer by Conor Jackson -- his second of the night -- off Luis Ayala, and the Washington bullpen, which had a major league-best 2.04 ERA since July 1, allowed seven runs in three innings.

And the sum total for the entire pitching staff: 10 walks, a season-high for a nine-inning game.

"I can't explain it," Manager Manny Acta said. "Just poor command of every one of his pitches."

That was in reference to Chico, the only player in the Nationals' disheveled rotation who has made each of his 24 scheduled starts. But he has recently had problems commanding his fastball, which has been tailing back over the plate instead of down and away, where he wants to throw it. Though he has mixed in his curveball more as the season has gone on, he can't get by without a fastball that goes where he wants it to.

"Every game, he's made a mistake or two in the middle of the plate, and they hit it out of the park," General Manager Jim Bowden said before the game. "He'll cruise through four innings, and then he'll give up a three-spot. . . . He's going to have to concentrate more. At this level, you can't make that mistake."

So that happened Friday night. With two outs and a man on in the first in the first inning, he missed badly with a 1-2 slider to Jackson -- throwing it "right into his bat," Chico said -- and Jackson collected his first two-run homer. Such results can also make Chico worry about his mechanics, causing him to forget about how and where he wants to execute a pitch.

"I catch him where it looks like he's really thinking out there," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "We talk about it: We have to work on our mechanics on the side, and we have to pitch and compete in a game. You can't be worried about your mechanics in a game."

In the third inning, Chico completely lost control. After Hernandez -- one of the best hitting pitchers in the league -- opened the inning with a double on another poorly placed slider, Chico got one strikeout, then walked Orlando Hudson. He got a groundout, then walked Jackson to load the bases. He worked rookie Justin Upton to a full count, then walked him, forcing in a run. And with the bases still plugged, he threw four straight balls to Mark Reynolds, driving in the run that gave the Diamondbacks a 4-1 lead.

"I was just trying to let throw the ball down the middle of the plate," Chico said, "and I hit every spot but down the middle."

Given the way Hernandez had toyed with the Nationals for the first five innings -- allowing only three hits, never more than one base runner in an inning -- it wouldn't have been surprising had the right-hander, still very much built like a plumber, walked away with an easy win. But Hernandez is nothing if not vulnerable to the home run, and even against a Nationals' lineup that has the fewest in the National League, he succumbed.

Felipe Lopez started it off with a leadoff shot in the sixth, his third homer on a road trip that is only five games old. After an out, Ryan Zimmerman hit the first pitch out to right, and Austin Kearns followed by sending a 2-0 pitch out to left. The last blast left the crowd of 31,110 delivering a few boos, and the Nationals had pulled into a 4-4 tie.

Even with such uneven performances -- Hernandez has allowed at least four runs in eight of his 24 starts -- Arizona Manager Bob Melvin said the Diamondbacks are happy with their end of the trade.

"He's a mainstay," Melvin said. "He's a guy that we lean on very hard and we expect big things out of, and he expects them of himself."

The Nationals, in turn, eventually expect better things out of Chico. And every day, they expect big things out of their bullpen -- much bigger than they got Friday night.

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