Webb Blanks Nationals On Six Hits

Mark Reynolds, right, is congratulated by third base coach Chip Hale after hitting a solo home run off Jason Bergmann in the second inning.
Mark Reynolds, right, is congratulated by third base coach Chip Hale after hitting a solo home run off Jason Bergmann in the second inning. (Paul Connors - AP)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

PHOENIX, May 31 -- One hour and 52 minutes after his workday began, Brandon Webb walked off the mound to a roar. He'd thrown 113 pitches. The 34 batters he'd faced looked more like accomplices than opponents. None reached beyond second base. When Willie Harris, the final Washington batter, struck out swinging, everybody clapped and went home for dinner. Comedies tend to run short.

Indeed, this night was for co-stars: one a top-of-the-line pitcher, the other a bottom-of-the-line offense. When Webb and the other Diamondbacks left the field, and the Washington Nationals retreated to a silent clubhouse, they'd combined for the shortest game in Chase Field history -- a 4-0 Nationals defeat, the Platonic ideal of bats gone silent.

Over nine innings, Webb struck out eight and walked nobody. From the game's earliest moments, the Nationals' players could tell that Webb was on his game. His sinker dropped. His curveball veered. And the Nationals' own inadequacies put those virtues under the spotlight.

"His ball moves so much," Wil Nieves said. "When you swing, it's already on your hands."

"He'll expand out the zone," Lastings Milledge said. "It's tough to tell where the ball will be."

Washington tried to answer Webb (10-2) with its own ace of the month, Jason Bergmann, who entered Saturday with a streak of 19 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. And Bergmann, by most accounts, had a superb night. He, too, pitched a complete game, Washington's first since Aug. 15, 2006. He, too, struck out eight and walked nobody.

Beyond that, however, Bergmann and Webb were joined by opposites. Only one qualifying pitcher in baseball induces a greater percentage of groundouts than Webb. Among pitchers with 30 innings or more, nobody has a higher fly-ball ratio than Bergmann. Webb leads National League pitchers in wins dating from 2006, when he won a Cy Young. Award That year, Bergmann was sent to the minors four times.

Oh, and then there was the matter of the mistakes. Webb made zero. Bergmann made four -- "Everything was working, except those four pitches," he said -- and all ended up as homers.

"He pitched very well," Manager Manny Acta said. "He gave us a chance, and that's all we asked -- match up Webb, give us a chance to stay in the game, and that's what he did. He pitched outstanding. What are the odds? He made, like, four mistakes the whole ballgame and they hit them out."

In the second inning, with one out, Bergmann delivered the kind of pitch that ends scoreless-inning streaks and erases scoreless games. His delivery to Mark Reynolds was a fastball. It traveled on a juicy line 60 feet toward Reynolds's bat. Then it traveled, in an imposing arc, an estimated 459 feet into a second-tier deck in left-center field.

Still, judged by most parts, this game was dictated by those on the mound. Second time through the Arizona order, Bergmann set down nine in a row -- including four strikeouts. When Stephen Drew finally led off the sixth with a feeble hit just beyond the reach of first baseman Dmitri Young, he used the next pitch to induce a double play.

Webb answered zero with zero. And he did so with an awesome pace. He used just seven pitches, all strikes, to blaze through the side in the first. He surrendered base runners in each of the next three innings, but none advanced beyond second, as if a moat stood between Washington and a legitimate threat.

For Bergmann (1-2), this game continued the two neutralizing trends of his latest big league stint. He's pitched well, but he's pitched against others who do it just as well. Since his May 14 recall from Class AAA Columbus, Bergmann has lowered his ERA from 10.45 to 4.50. Saturday, his final line lacked the required flawlessness -- especially after he allowed three more home runs in the seventh and eighth innings -- but it still reflected a reliable outing, one that Bergmann called "on key."

Bergmann's mound opponents are a large reason he still has just one win this season. In his last three starts, he's faced three staff aces: Webb, Milwaukee's Ben Sheets and Philadelphia's Cole Hamels. In the one game this month when Bergmann didn't oppose an ace, Washington merely made the pitcher look like one; on May 15, Bergmann's first game back from the minors, the Mets' Mike Pelfrey took a no-hitter into the seventh.

Bergmann eventually won that start, 1-0.

He lost next time out to Hamels, 1-0.

"I don't pitch against the other pitcher, I pitch against the other hitters," Bergmann said after this one. "Webb comes up, and that's the only time I think about him."

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