By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Kory Casto remembers his days in the minor leagues when he routinely could expect to get four at-bats per game, the days when he was a fixture in the starting lineup, fully aware of the role he was expected to fill. Swing too long in the first at-bat? Shorten it up the next time through the batting order. Got fooled by a breaking ball? A chance to make amends would arise before too long.
But as Casto dug into the batter's box with a man on first in the bottom of the seventh inning last night, he did so having not recorded more than four at-bats in a single game in more than a week. In fact, over the past seven days, Casto had been afforded just four at-bats total. So there was no time for adjustments, no time for exaggerated leg kicks, or any of the other adjustable quirks that regulars employ.
"I haven't been starting as much, so I've been trying to eliminate the things in my swing that don't matter," said Casto, whose pinch-hit double drove in what proved to be the winning run. "I'm not seeing three or four at-bats per game, so I'm trying to eliminate a lot of the movement out of my swing."
The Nationals prevailed over the Baltimore Orioles, 4-2, in front of 35,830 fans, the largest turnout since Opening Day. There were errors, sure. Some shaky relief, as well. In the end, though, it was the ability of Casto and a group of other young, raw talents that enabled the Nationals to overcome their miscues and remain just off the pace of 100 losses.
Before the game, Manny Acta held up the trio of Jesús Flores (23), Lastings Milledge (23) and Elijah Dukes (24) as the pillars on which the team will lean for the near future. Fair? Absolutely not, considering the age and inexperience of the three players. Necessary? For this squad, yes.
Nearly every component of the team has been decimated by injuries this season. The starting rotation took another hit this week when Shawn Hill was placed on the disabled list with a right forearm strain. He said yesterday there is no timetable for his return because he has been limited to complete rest for the time being.
Odalis Pérez, last night's starter, just returned from a trip to the disabled list himself. He missed much of the past month with left shoulder tendinitis and was put on an 80-pitch limit in his first start back. Pérez lasted four innings, giving up three hits and three walks, but, most importantly, no runs.
"He had good pop on his fastball," Acta said of Pérez. "He was just trying to be too fine early in the game, and that got him deep into counts early.
After his night was through, Pérez turned possession of a two-run lead over to a bullpen that has contributed as much as any other component to the Nationals' uninspiring start this season. Right-hander Steven Shell was charged not only with building on Pérez's appeasable effort, but also with providing hope that the second half to the Nationals' 2008 campaign will not be as dreary as was the first.
Not too long ago, Shell had been a part of a minor league system General Manager Jim Bowden called "a dream." In 18 relief appearances for Class AAA Columbus, Shell went 2-1 with one save and a 1.73 ERA for a team that is six games over .500 and in second place in its division.
Since being called up June 21, Shell has been a part of a major league squad that Bowden called "a nightmare," when asked to assess the team's performance at the midway point of the season.
Shell allowed three hits and a pair of walks in his two innings of work. He gave up one earned run, the other coming about after a fielding error by left fielder Wily Mo Peña in the sixth inning.
Miscues in the middle innings nullified a productive start by the Nationals' offense. Milledge and Flores -- two members of the new core -- both drove in runs in the first inning.
"We have a lot of guys whose roles have been changing," Milledge said. "Now, we know what to expect. We understand our roles, and we know what we need to do to win."
In the end, it was Casto -- the bench player who spends most of his games picking the brain of former pinch-hitting great and current Nationals hitting coach Lenny Harris on the finer aspects of performing on the fly -- who was up to bat with the game on the line and no time for in-game adjustments.
"It's tough doing something I've never really done before, but I'm starting to feel more comfortable," Casto said. "I understand now that it's your one shot, and you've got to make it count."