Presently, Nats Are Looking To Future

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

The twin superlatives that consumed Nationals Park -- home yesterday to the baseball season's longest and most critical day -- almost never overlapped.

The longest day unfolded on the field, where, from 1:10 p.m. until well after 10, the Washington Nationals played two baseball games, scored 11 runs, broke out for one comeback win and did nothing to alter their foremost reality, a last-place position in the standings.

The most critical day unfolded behind closed doors, where, at 3 p.m., the franchise's decision-makers gathered in a third-floor meeting room and used one draft pick -- and in turn, one 21-year-old right-handed pitcher -- to further raise their anticipation for the future.

In that manner, one day in one stadium revealed a rare dichotomy, that of a present team ignored and a future team celebrated. The present team played in front of a slim daytime crowd. The future team enticed those who crave winning baseball. The present team split a doubleheader against St. Louis, losing 4-1 in the first game before rebounding for a 10-9 win in 10 innings in the nightcap.

The future team -- if all contract negotiations go well -- could have the services of University of Missouri ace Aaron Crow, drafted with the ninth overall selection and then described with the hyperbole of great hopes.

After Washington made its choice, a cadre of the team's front-office leadership -- including General Manager Jim Bowden -- walked into a lower-level press conference to talk about the pick. Bowden, along with Mike Rizzo, Dana Brown and Bob Boone, took turns speaking about Crow's fastball (92-97 mph), his command (excellent), his competitiveness (again, excellent) and his desirability (unanimous). This draft had been top-heavy with college hitters, any of whom could have filled an organization-wide need for power. But when the Chicago White Sox, picking eighth, selected University of Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham, Washington capitalized on a secondary benefit of all those bats.

It took the draft's second-best pitcher, as ranked by Baseball America.

A pitcher who, in most years, wouldn't have been available for so long.

"It's so difficult to get a power arm of this nature so late in the draft," said Brown, the team's scouting director.

All day, Bowden, by necessity, had paid little attention to his current baseball team. He had called draft day the most important moment of the year, particularly for an organization rich at all levels except the one people actually see. At the same time Bowden spoke about Crow, the Nationals were in the final two innings of their fourth straight loss. A flat-screen television in Bowden's news conference room had played a muted feed of the game on MASN, but was turned off at the last moment. A live feed on ESPN2, broadcasting the draft from Orlando, was kept on.

Asked if he had kept an eye on the game, Bowden said, "We have watched a little bit." Then he paused a beat and added, "Unfortunately."

Now in their fourth year in the District, the Nationals have relied on their drafting success to build equity with a fan base not yet seeing returns. Even yesterday, the team covered its traditional checkerboard press conference banner with a special year-by-year timeline of its first-round picks. Ryan Zimmerman in 2005. Chris Marrero in 2006. Ross Detwiler last year.

Assuming they can sign him by Aug. 15, the mandated deadline, the Nationals can add Crow to their list.

"We all know when you play into October and win championships, you do it with starting pitching, and certainly we feel very blessed that with the ninth selection we're able to get one of the top two pitchers in the draft," Bowden said.

Talk of October parades struck a jarring note given the backdrop of baseball happening outside. When Nationals left-hander John Lannan threw the first pitch in Game 1, a makeup for the previous evening's rainout, some 1,000 people pock-marked the stands. Those in the upper deck could hear the amplified voice of radio play-by-play man Charlie Slowes echoing through the concourse. When St. Louis's Troy Glaus clubbed a two-run homer in the fourth inning, the decisive strike, a quiet stadium became a mausoleum.

Few players within the Nationals' clubhouse cared about the draft. None of its particulars, after all, would alter their team anytime soon. They'd meet Crow, at best, once this season and then again in spring training, after he's spent time pitching for Class A Potomac. Manager Manny Acta only learned about the team's selection when it was announced on the stadium scoreboard.

"I manage a big league club, and that's about it," Acta said.

While Acta worried about the day's job, Bowden contemplated what was ahead. At least one Nationals representative attended every start Crow made this season, during which he managed a 13-0 record, a 2.35 ERA and a streak of 43.0 consecutive scoreless innings pitched. Scouts hyper-analyzed his personality and his flaws. His slider? Outstanding. His curveball? Needs work. That quirky hook in his delivery? Rizzo studied it on replay frame-by-frame. "We call it a soft wrap, because he gets out of it very quickly," Rizzo said. "We felt it was a nominal risk."

Crow's ability to throw strikes has the Nationals convinced that he'll be on a "fast track" -- Bowden's words -- to the big leagues. In one start this season, Crow threw 87 of 107 pitches for strikes. "Ultimately what gets you to the big leagues is commanding your pitches," Boone said.

When the 50-round draft concluded last night with six rounds done, the team's front office discussed its plans for the next steps. They'd stay at the park until well past midnight, drinking coffee and discussing the upcoming work.

At least, that was the plan.

But then the Nationals managed to cook up their own drama. They blew a seven-run lead, teetered into extra innings and allowed a go-ahead home run. Tension simmered. Then, an Elijah Dukes game-winning home run in the 10th inning -- a blast over the center field fence -- turned the tension into joy.

Bowden and several others flooded into the clubhouse. Acta received a round of congratulations. The current team, too, had earned its moment of elation.

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