Nats Like Their Lefty Look

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Ray King explains how he lost weight over the offseason, talks about his favorite nickname and expresses his love for Coke Zero. Video by Jonathan Forsythe/
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

JUPITER, Fla., March 5 -- Late Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals informed their top draft pick from a year ago, lanky left-hander Ross Detwiler, that he would be reassigned to minor league camp so he could pitch on a more regular basis. Earlier in the day, left-hander Matt Chico tinkered with his delivery in an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Still another lefty, veteran Odalis Pérez, threw in a minor league game, tweaking his change-up.

And Wednesday, with General Manager Jim Bowden sitting in the front row at Roger Dean Stadium, 23-year-old lefty John Lannan finished off a three-inning outing by falling behind Troy Glaus, the seasoned third baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1, then blowing him away with a curveball, then a fastball.

"He can pitch," Bowden said shortly thereafter, cracking a bit of a smile.

When the Nationals played their first season in Washington in 2005, they didn't start a lefty until Aug. 27 -- and even then it was Matt White, a journeyman brought up for an emergency appearance, then immediately banished to the minors, never to be heard from again. Now, the Nationals have three lefties -- Lannan, Chico and Pérez -- battling for spots in the 2008 rotation, with Detwiler leading a group of prospects who might eventually take over those spots.

"It's huge," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "When you get a lefty-loaded lineup coming up there, you can turn [switch hitters] around. There's a lot of right-handed-hitting teams that don't hit lefties well, either."

Go through the National League East, and it's apparent how important having at least a lefty or two could be. Philadelphia has Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. The New York Mets have Carlos Delgado. Atlanta has Chipper Jones -- a switch hitter who hit 104 points higher against right-handed pitchers than lefties last year -- not to mention catcher Brian McCann. Even Florida has dangerous left-handed hitters such as Jeremy Hermida and Mike Jacobs.

Bowden is quick to point out: "I like starting pitchers that get people out. I'd carry five righties or five lefties if they get them out. It doesn't matter to me."

But the way things are breaking, there's no way the Nationals will start the season with five right-handers, as they did in 2005. Lannan could be one big reason why. Though he wasn't perfect in his second outing of the spring -- he pitched behind too many hitters, in his estimation, and walked two in his three innings -- he showed the same traits that vaulted him from Class A through the Nationals' system all the way to the majors last season. In five innings this spring, he hasn't allowed a run.

"He's one of those guys that you just know is going to be a successful big league pitcher because it doesn't matter what the situation is -- bases loaded, whatever," Bowden said. "He'll find a way to put the ball where he needs to to get the out."

In six major league starts last year, Lannan went 2-2 with a 4.15 ERA. It was, he admits, "crazy" going all the way from Class A Potomac to the majors in four months. In his third start, he found himself pitching in San Francisco with Barry Bonds sitting on 755 homers. Lannan, just 22 at the time, faced Bonds four times, walking him once and retiring him the other three -- including a strikeout on his last pitch of the outing.

That night, Lannan didn't have his best control -- just as he didn't Wednesday. "He couldn't command his fastball," Manager Manny Acta said. But his chance to make the Nationals comes because of what he does even without his precision. As one scout in attendance said Wednesday, "He pitches older than he is."

"I like his confidence out there on the mound, the way he handles himself," St. Claire said. "There's not a whole lot of negatives about him."

Acta, too, has been adamant about the position in which Chico finds himself. He made 31 starts a year ago as a rookie, posting a 4.63 ERA even though he frequently struggled with his control and worked on his mechanics. The average ERA for a National League starter in 2007: 4.64. Though Chico's repertoire is not as impressive as that of Lannan or Detwiler, Acta and St. Claire think there's reason to believe he can improve on last year.

"I think he can be a guy who has a 3.60, 3.70 ERA lots of years," St. Claire said.

And even though Detwiler was sent down in the first round of cuts, Bowden said it says nothing about his long-term prospects in the organization.

"His command's not there yet," Bowden said. "To sit here and not get enough innings doesn't make any sense for us. Let him go back to minor league camp, get the ball, stretch him out. You've got to pitch to fix the command."

Bowden said Detwiler is tentatively scheduled to start the season at Class A Potomac, where he pitched last year. But he will be there, waiting. Throw in lefties Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary -- high schoolers selected in last year's draft -- the Nationals now have, as Bowden said, an "inventory" of players who weren't around on that August day three years ago, when Matt White got the call because there was nowhere else to turn.

"We're so much better off," St. Claire said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company