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Mystery Game

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, May 17, 2008

BALTIMORE

If you think you understand baseball, it probably just means you aren't paying close enough attention. For example, take the Nats, a mystery inside a conundrum.

Closer Chad Cordero has been hurt almost all year. Now cleanup man Nick Johnson will be lost for about a month. The players used most of the time in the supposed heart of the order are hitting .192, .211, .220, .234 and .238. And the entire starting outfield has four homers.

Then, on Friday before losing the first game of a series against the region rival Orioles, Manager Manny Acta finally benched right fielder Austin Kearns, whose catatonic slump (slugging .274) has infected every part of his game, even his excellent defense. Atop that, in the Nats' 5-3 loss to Baltimore, mammoth Wily Mo Peña and Elijah Dukes went 0 for 7 with four strikeouts and nine men left on base. The 510-pound duo: zero homers.

The list of unexpected disappointments and injuries, all in seven weeks, can seem endless. How much more turmoil can a team of humble talents endure? Especially because it already suffered a 2-15 collapse in April?

"We lost our two starting catchers, too," Nats bench coach Pat Corrales said of Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada. "But despite it all we've been playing pretty well for weeks now."

Strange game. The Nats, even after this loss, have won 13 of their last 23 games, including three of four from the Mets this week in New York. It's just such a paradox -- the unexpected, bordering on the inexplicable -- that addicts us to the game.

Why are the Nats still afloat? And likely to stay presentably decent until their injured players return and their supposed sluggers rediscover the meaning of the exotic term "home run"?

Whisper the fragile words: starting pitching.

"In spring training, we wondered sometimes if we had three [dependable] starting pitchers," Acta said.

How many do you have now? "Let's go through the rotation a couple of more times before we answer that," Acta answered, grinning.

However, the answer might be "five."

When John Patterson, considered the ace of the staff not so long ago, was released in March, a shudder went through the organization. When Odalis Pérez, a last-minute (desperation) spring addition, was the Opening Night starter at new Nationals Park, eyes were rolled. This could get ugly. Yet just the opposite has happened, starting with a long series of decent-to-quality starts by Pérez, who is only 30.

Tim Redding has continued the consistent power pitching that began last July. His 5-3 record and 3.55 ERA are more likely to continue than disappear. "I'm throwing as well as I ever have," said Redding, words he doubted he'd say when he was almost out of the game three seasons ago after arm surgery.

Young John Lannan has shown poise on nights when he didn't have his best stuff and dominated good lineups, such as the Braves' and Mets' on the road, when he had his full repertoire. Then, on Thursday at Shea Stadium, Jason Bergmann, just back from banishment to the minors, pitched perhaps the best game of his career, going seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and beating Mike Pelfrey, 1-0, even though the Met took a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

"This game can put a lot of stress on you," Bergmann said. "That game was big for more than one reason. The team needed it." But Bergmann needed it far more.

Perhaps the measure of the staff's improvement is that Shawn Hill's performance on Friday, allowing four earned runs in five innings, was about as bad as the Nats' rotation usually has offered this spring.

And Hill was undermined by his team's defense. Felipe López threw a ball into the dugout to permit one run. And, on consecutive plays, Dukes in right field and Lastings Milledge in center played a double into a triple and an out into a double.

"I can't get the feel on my off-speed stuff. So hitters are sitting on my fastball. I need to throw more on the side between starts to get [the proper release point]. But I can't do it because I'm not 100 percent," Hill said, referring to his recovery from offseason surgery on his forearm. "It's getting old, waiting for the [arm] to come around. But I can battle through. Now, the pros of side work don't outweigh the cons" of arm discomfort between starts.

Yet the perfectionist Hill still has such a fine sinking fastball that his ERA is 4.08 while throwing little else.

Once a team has dependable starting pitching, "all things are possible," Nats President Stan Kasten claimed. So, provided Hill gets healthier, not hurt, much is conceivable.

However, the Nats' horizons will be limited until their teamwide hitting problems are at least partially solved. The situation has gotten so tense that the Nats made two moves on Friday night that bordered on desperate.

First, Dmitri Young was brought back up from the minors after just five at-bats on his rehab assignment. The option to use him as a designated hitter in an American League park outweighed all other considerations.

"Dmitri doesn't go into slumps. He's a natural hitter," Acta said. And Young managed a hit and a line-drive out. You have to do something when, as Acta said, you have "10 guys hitting under .240. How is that possible?" Actually, it's 11 if you count Lo Duca and Estrada, who are on the disabled list.

The benching on Kearns, however, was the night's most somber sight. He was stoic, uncomplaining, especially after dropping a routine fly ball on Thursday.

"Austin is going to be working on some things. He's getting his hands back -- setting his 'trigger' -- a little bit late. Sometimes you need to see it from the outside," said Acta, using the euphemism "outside" for the literal word, "bench."

"Besides, we need to find at-bats for Dukes. We need to find some offense anywhere."

And Kearns, after his head-clearing day, will be back in the lineup Saturday.

For true fans, those who watch plenty of games but know the intricacies of many others, it is immersion in every detail of their favorite teams that makes baseball such an obsessive pleasure. On night like this, with 29,266 in the stands on a raw, misty, windy night, one barely fit for football, much less baseball, you sense how connected they are to every twist in the fate of their teams.

Even the seasons of teams with little chance of great success, like these Nats and O's, are so rich in plot and personality, in poignancy and constantly changing possibility, that the analogy to a classic thick novel, or maybe just a good soap opera, is obvious. We're drawn in every day. What on earth is next?

Few teams have as much possibility for sudden improvement, if they start to hit, as these Nationals. "I'm not sure a lot of fans know how quickly a team's season can turn," Acta said. "If our offense gets where it should be, we could get hot real fast."

However, the opposite is equally true. Few teams are in danger of as sudden and dramatic deterioration if their starting pitchers, the unexpected saviors who have prevented embarrassment, should lose their touch.

"Yeah, that too," Acta said. "Crazy game."

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