Nationals, Chico Extend Spoiler Role

Ryan Church, left, who doubled twice, greets Austin Kearns, who homered.
Ryan Church, left, who doubled twice, greets Austin Kearns, who homered. (By Kathy Willens -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- The sturdy young man in the center of a pennant race stands 6 feet 7. His shoulders are broad, his stride long, his fastball full of zip. Mike Pelfrey, at 23 years old, is the New York Mets' top prospect. He looks the part.

Pelfrey's counterpart Monday night at Shea Stadium -- where the Mets are desperately trying to protect a fragile lead in the National League East -- was Matt Chico of the Washington Nationals. He is generously listed at 5-11. His fastball hovers in the mid- to high-80s. And had he not been traded to the pitching-starved Nationals from Arizona last August, he wouldn't have sniffed the majors at age 24.

Yet Monday night, in a game that meant far more to Pelfrey's Mets than to Chico's Nationals, Chico beat Pelfrey and the Nationals beat the Mets, 13-4, their third win against New York in four games over the past week. Chico received support in the form of a three-run homer from Austin Kearns, and the Nationals later added another from Ryan Langerhans. Pelfrey was charged with six earned runs in a miserable start, and with the second-place Philadelphia Phillies idle, the Mets' lead in the division shrank to two games with six to play.

"We're not in first place," said Nationals outfielder Ryan Church, who hit his 41st and 42nd doubles of the year. "We got nothing to lose. It's fun. We could make or break their season. I know that Philly's right behind them, and that wild card's like a half-game. Anything can happen. It'd be great to be part of something where you could say we had an impact on somebody's season."

The beleaguered Mets' bullpen -- led by current Queens whipping boy Guillermo Mota, who gave up three runs in the eighth -- contributed to this meltdown, and the boos in Flushing were a mix of frustration over an embarrassing loss and fear that a three-game sweep of Florida over the weekend will mean little by week's end.

Ronnie Belliard added two doubles as well, all in support of Chico, coming to the finish line of a typical rookie season.

Make what you will of his record (6-9), of his ERA (4.75), of his demotion to Class AAA Columbus for two weeks at the end of August -- and even of his uneven 5 1/3 -inning, three-run performance Monday.

"I didn't feel great today as far as pitching," Chico said. "My arm just felt kind of heavy today, and just kind of wanted to get through it."

Which is what the Nationals want from him. They entered the season with the following five members of the rotation: John Patterson, Shawn Hill, Chico, Jason Bergmann and Jerome Williams.

"He was a question mark going into spring," catcher Brian Schneider said of Chico. Yet come September, Chico is the only member of that crew not to spend time on the disabled list. He made his 30th start of the season Monday -- second-most, to Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka, among all rookies. None of the others has made more than Bergmann's 19, and no one on the staff is within 45 innings of Chico's 161.

Thus, the Nationals found out what they wanted to know about Chico, and that was quite simple: Could he handle the grind? They believe he can, though he has much on which to work, particularly eliminating an annoying and involuntary cut on his pitches, one that makes his catchers dive across the plate just to stop the ball.

That happened again Monday night. Chico allowed three base runners in the first, at least one in each inning he pitched. Yet through five, the Mets had one run.

"A lot of times he has started shaky," Manager Manny Acta said. "You look at it like, 'Man, this guy might not make it out of the third inning.' And he gets right back up and puts together some good innings for us."

Pelfrey, meanwhile, crumbled. Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, Pelfrey issued two-out walks to Ryan Zimmerman and Church. That brought up Kearns, who drilled a 2-1 pitch to left-center. It cleared the wall for the 15th homer of a year in which he has struggled to find his power stroke, putting the Nationals up 5-1. An inning later, two walks sandwiched around two outs killed Pelfrey. Mets Manager Willie Randolph yanked him. He needed 97 pitches to record 17 outs, and was done for the night.

The solution: right-handed reliever Joe Smith, a side-armer. But Belliard laid into a Smith offering, sending it to left for a two-run double. The Nationals were up 7-1, en route to a rout.

Acta was the Mets' third base coach the past two years. He was asked about his former club's struggles, seven losses in their last 11, after Monday's result. "They're the team that can just wake up tomorrow and just roll over everybody," Acta said, "and probably not stop until the end of the World Series."

If that is to happen, it best start against the Nationals -- a foe that has proven feisty -- in the next two days, regardless of who is on the mound for either team.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company