In His Debut, Balester Works Like a Charm for Nationals

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

MIAMI, July 1 -- Because of its rarity, Collin Balester's power tantalized. Even before team management saw it on a major league field, they talked about it. Nobody else in the current rotation threw quite as fast. Manager Manny Acta thought Balester had "one of the best fastballs in our system." When Balester arrived here for his major league debut, General Manager Jim Bowden gave him simple advice, which is the only guidance a pitcher whose fastball touches 96 mph sometimes needs.

Use the fastball inside, Bowden said. Don't change your approach.

But on a night when Washington unveiled its top young power pitcher, the Nationals supplied something less anticipated. Their lineup showcased power, too, leading to a 9-6 victory over the Florida Marlins at Dolphin Stadium. Balester won his first game in the majors not just because of his five innings -- four of them dominant -- but also because of what supported him: a fourth-inning Elijah Dukes solo blast hit far enough to clear the left field stands and hard enough almost go through them; a sixth-inning Ronnie Belliard grand slam; a succession of eighth-inning hits that provided the Nationals with three more runs, and just enough breathing room for a fatigued bullpen.

Washington needed much of its firepower. After Balester exited a 2-1 game, the numbers ballooned. The Nationals feasted on the final innings of Florida starter Mark Hendrickson (6 innings, 10 hits, 6 earned runs) and chewed away at the bullpen for a total of 15 hits, second most all season. Belliard's grand slam, on a 1-0 pitch from Hendrickson, helped Washington cash in on three consecutive singles to start the inning, building a 6-1 lead.

Even some tenuous bullpen work thereafter couldn't mess that up. Closer Jon Rauch finished the ninth when the potential tying run, Luis Gonzalez, flew out to center field. Power supporting power, Balester ended his first night as a big leaguer with a victory.

"Those last four innings seemed like they took about four hours," Balester said. "It was fun, though, to watch. I'm just so happy to be here and so happy to win in the big leagues."

"Very impressive," Acta said of the right-hander's one-hit effort. "We haven't had an arm come through our system like this since Javier Vázquez. It's exciting. The kid threw the ball very well."

The kid had arrived in his new clubhouse earlier that day, just after 4 p.m. He dropped off his bags and said, to nobody in particular, "Good to be here."

He met briefly with pitching coach Randy St. Claire. He stepped into his manager's office for a chat. The assistant clubhouse manager, Dan Wallin, found him a hat and batting helmet with the proper size. A few teammates offered their casual welcome greetings. The sequence of ordinary moments, of course, tried to mask what nobody acknowledged but everybody knew: Balester's arrival was important. And anticipated.

When Bowden came to the organization in November 2004, he inherited a farm system that was Sahara-dry. Balester, a California surfer who'd been selected months earlier in the fourth round of the draft, was one of just several meaningful prospects -- the last of the line of Montreal Expos.

His promotion to the big leagues consecrated years of development, coming only after his fastball matured into a sizzler, only after he had developed a change-up, only after his minor league won-lost record caught up with his potential. (He entered the year as a sub-.500 pitcher, but went 9-3 at Columbus.) Now, if Balester pitches as Washington wants, he'll never get sent down -- evidence of an organization philosophy that the best talent deserves the toughest opposition.

"Everybody's different," Bowden said, "but Collin, like Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge and John Lannan, are young guys that we think will do better developing here at this level. You don't face Hanley Ramírez in Class AAA."

Fitting for the occasion, Washington marked Balester's debut in firsts. His first pitch: a called strike, fastball inside. His first out: He got Florida's lead-off man, Ramírez, to break his bat and pop out. His first strikeout: Cody Ross started the second inning by fanning at a 94-mph fastball. His first oh-wow sequence: Between the end of the first and the start of the fifth, he retired 10 in a row.

Balester entered the fifth with a no-hitter, but briefly lost his command as his pitch count rose into the mid-90s. But even in a jam, he showed confidence. After walking two batters, including the pitcher, he forced Ramírez to loft a short fly to shallow right, caught by second baseman Felipe López. López wasn't ready to make a quick throw home, so the play counted as a sacrifice fly. But Washington took it as another first: Balester had escaped his first tough spot.

When Acta removed him, he told his pitcher, "There's no way we can blow this for you."

"But," Acta said, "we actually needed every one of those runs."

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