By Chance, Opportunities

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Because baseball's season is so long, so full of trips to the disabled list that last for weeks but not a whole season, the sport constantly offers opportunities to players who are prepared to capitalize on them. Just as the game exposes those who aren't ready to grasp their main chance.

The Nationals hate that 10 players from their Opening Day roster have made 13 trips to the disabled list and missed 222 games so far this season. A month from now, Chad Cordero, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns and Paul Lo Duca might still not be back.

But as Nationals Park turns into a medical ward, the door has swung wide for others who are making themselves a big part of the club's future. Jon Rauch, Jesús Flores and Jason Bergmann showed again yesterday why they may become the closer, the catcher and a 15-game winner on some not-too-distant day. This trio has already been central to the Nats' 17-15 competence over the past five weeks after an abysmal 5-15 start.

Others, particularly reliever Joel Hanrahan and outfielder Elijah Dukes, remain on the edges. Their talents are obvious, but their skills remain raw. However, both are temptingly close to being producers, as they showed in yesterday's 11-inning, 4-3 loss to the Brewers.

The most conspicuous and vital Nats replacement has been Rauch, the tallest pitcher in history and one of the most imposing at 290 pounds. "You try to do the job, not take the job," summarized Rauch, who, after a shaky start, has assumed the closer role for his friend Cordero and converted 10 of his last 11 save chances with a 0.87 ERA since April 13. "Ask anybody who's in this position. It's an unspoken thing. You don't think about the guy who's hurt. You pay attention to what you can control -- yourself.

"I'm just trying to fill in because we need somebody to do it."

Without Rauch, who led the majors in appearances with 88 last year, the Nats' season might already be in flames. While Tim Redding and Cristian Guzmán are mentioned as all-star candidates, Rauch might be placed before them both if he didn't play down his role so much, out of personal and professional deference to Cordero. They go back.

After Cordero, at 23, registered a major league-best 47 saves in '05, he was inundated the next spring with free equipment, including boxes of new shoes. Rauch, though three years older, was still not established and mooched free shoes from "The Chief." How can a 6-foot-11 man wear the same size shoe as Cordero, listed at 6 feet but probably less?

"I'm one size larger," Rauch said. But back then free shoes were free shoes. And Nikes run large. Now, Rauch is again filling Cordero's shoes. Yet he doesn't claim them. "Chad's been tremendous so long, the second youngest to 100 saves," Rauch said.

If Cordero, who was nervous as he played catch tentatively yesterday, can make a full recovery, Rauch may step aside. For now. However, on depth charts where future Nats teams are projected, Rauch now appears, not Cordero. Such things change often. Still, over three workhorse seasons, Rauch has become the Nats' biggest security blanket.

"Rauch can pitch anywhere he wants. He can set up or he can close," Manager Manny Acta said after Rauch pitched a scoreless ninth yesterday. "He has four quality pitches and he throws them all for strikes. He's not afraid."

However, with the glare and tattoos, he instills some fear.

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