Nats' Redding Proceeds With Caution

Tim Redding, shown last season, had his best outing of the spring yesterday, but he is pragmatic after struggling in camp a year ago.
Tim Redding, shown last season, had his best outing of the spring yesterday, but he is pragmatic after struggling in camp a year ago. (By Greg Fiume -- Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 13 -- When the ball landed in the glove of Washington Nationals center fielder Lastings Milledge on Thursday night, Tim Redding walked slowly off the mound and back to the dugout. There, Manny Acta -- a man who served as his manager in Class A ball, and was there to help shepherd him back to the majors last summer -- shook his hand, patted him on the back and sent him to the showers, a job well done.

When discussions about the Nationals' still-forming rotation take place -- and they do so frequently this spring -- they usually begin with Shawn Hill's right forearm or John Patterson's potential. Prospects such as Collin Balester, Ross Detwiler and Garrett Mock have garnered attention since camp convened a month ago.

And through it all, Redding has quietly come to the clubhouse, gotten his work in, showered and gone home. Thursday night, he had his best outing of the spring, five innings of one-hit, one-walk ball against the Florida Marlins, a performance in which the Marlins went hitless through four innings.

Such results, still with more than two weeks to go before the season opener, can easily be dismissed if his next two starts are poor. Indeed, Redding's previous outing was a three-inning, five-run disaster marred by a fierce wind blowing out to right. This is something the 30-year-old understands. He went through a horrendous spring a year ago -- we'll get to that -- and he arrived here last month a different person. It would seem, to anyone who has watched him throw, that he should be penciled into the rotation. He is far more cautious.

"The way I'm throwing the ball here, I'd like to carry it over into the regular season," Redding said. "But at the same time, I know on any given day, I can get my brains beat in."

This is the voice of a realist. And if last spring didn't show Redding the inherently fragile nature of a baseball career, nothing will. He was chosen in the Nationals' offseason, bargain-basement shopping binge and granted one of the best chances to make a rotation that included exactly zero established starters.

"Last spring was obviously a flea market," Redding said. "There were so many spots open for grabs. . . . You sit back and go, 'Okay, all I got to do is be healthy, throw the ball decent and I'm on the team.' But at the same time, you have a bad outing, and all of a sudden you're like, 'All right, seriously, if I can't make this team, I can't make it anywhere.' "

Redding had more than one bad outing last spring, and each lousy performance seemed to beget another. Midway through spring training, a wide-open situation didn't include Redding.

"I think he just thought about it too much," Acta said earlier this spring. "I think he wasn't being himself."

So anonymously, he went to Class AAA Columbus, essentially trying to salvage his career. Players who are, as Redding said, "4-A players" -- those with the talent to perform in the minors, but who shrivel in the majors -- only get so many chances. And when Redding gave up 12 earned runs in 1 2/3 innings in one of his starts for the Clippers, he was teetering on the edge of a baseball life.

"I kept pressing and pressing and pressing," Redding said. "The more times you see a guy press in a game, in any kind of sport, more times than not they're going to fail."

But one of the reasons the Nationals are building depth with starting pitching -- and they are now in a position where they may have pitchers in their early 20s filling out the rotation at Columbus -- is because injuries are inevitable. By early July of last year, they were desperate enough to turn to a pitcher who had a 5.32 ERA and a .304 opponents' batting average. They turned to Redding.

What happened next was impossible to predict.

"Fifteen starts with an ERA in the 3s," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "That's good enough for me."

Redding was not dominant for the Nationals, and he only pitched more than six innings in six of his 15 starts. But he was effective. He posted a 3.62 ERA. He gave up more than three runs in an outing just three times, and he was never truly shelled.

Now, he looks the part of a major league pitcher. There are questions throughout the Nationals' rotation, and no one has absolutely nailed down a spot. But Acta has been clear: Redding would have to pitch himself out of the rotation, not rocket his way into it. Immediately after his five-run outing against Houston last week, he said he wanted to "flush" the performance, because he was throwing the ball too well to let it bother him.

Thursday night, he threw it well again. Fragile a year ago, he is trying to forget that experience -- even as it sits there, in the back of his mind.

"I'm excited," Redding said. "But at the same time, I realize: Just keep myself humble, keep myself back in the shadows, and go out and do my job."

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