Nats' Bullpen Comes To Rescue Once Again

Jason Bergmann calls his seven-inning, one-run, nine-strikeout outing
Jason Bergmann calls his seven-inning, one-run, nine-strikeout outing "a good step in the right direction" toward earning a spot in Washington's 2008 rotation. It was his longest outing since May 14. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Yesterday afternoon, long after Jason Bergmann worked seven impressive innings and Wily Mo Pe?a homered, Brian Schneider watched the final out fall into the glove of right fielder Austin Kearns and walked directly toward the mound. Chad Cordero strode toward Schneider.

The two men, catcher and closer, began their ritual. A bump of the fists. A punch in the chest. A little tomahawk chop, in honor of Cordero's nickname of "Chief." And a light slap to the left cheek, all in celebration of the Washington Nationals' 6-3 victory over the Florida Marlins at sun-drenched RFK Stadium.

The celebration has evolved over time, but it is one in which both Cordero and Schneider take great comfort. Though Bergmann sparked the Nationals' third straight win with his seven-inning, one-run, nine-strikeout performance, Washington couldn't breathe easily until Jon Rauch came on in the eighth and struck out a pair of men with the bases loaded. And the Nationals couldn't say they had moved out of a tie with the Marlins and into fourth place alone in the National League East until Cordero notched his 30th save, one more than he had all of last year.

Just more than a month ago, Rauch and Cordero were the most intensely discussed names as Washington approached the non-waiver trade deadline. But yesterday, they still wore red Nationals caps. The merits of their seasons have been widely discussed among fans, and they make highlight reels more frequently after failures than successes. Yet in their own clubhouse, they are accepted.

"If there's anyone that was happy at that deadline, where we didn't trade our eighth- and ninth-inning guys, it was me," Schneider said. "Those guys have been really good for us."

Their own evaluations are slightly different. "I just did my job," Rauch said matter-of-factly yesterday.

It is, however, heavy lifting. No major league pitcher has thrown in more than Rauch's 76 games this year nor his 161 over the past two. Manager Manny Acta, who watched right-hander Jesus Colome put the brakes on a game that was moving along swiftly, has some sympathy when he makes the inevitable call to the bullpen.

"I feel bad, and that's the reason why those guys have pitched so much, because almost every game we win is in close fashion," Acta said. "Today was the perfect day to stay away from those guys, but because of how dicey it got in the eighth, you have no choice."

It didn't have to be that way. Bergmann struggled through a 27-pitch first inning, then allowed a solo homer to Mike Jacobs leading off the second. But from there, he was sharp. He found his slider and occasionally threw it at 87-88 mph, harder than normal. "It was actually sliding," he said. He completed seven innings for the first time since May 14 -- the night he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Atlanta, but then ended up on the disabled list with elbow inflammation.

The performance came at a time when he is trying to prove he belongs in the rotation for 2008.

"This is a good step in the right direction," he said.

With a two-run double from Schneider in the second and a four-run sixth capped by Pe?a's fifth homer with Washington, the Nationals figured rocking chairs were in order for a nice, easy Labor Day afternoon. But Colome loaded the bases in the eighth on a single, a walk and another single. When fearsome Florida slugger Miguel Cabrera reached on Ronnie Belliard's error -- a miscue on which the second baseman made an ill-advised decision to try to get a force at second rather than a sure out at first -- two runs scored to make it 6-3, and Acta had no choice but to turn to Rauch.

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