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After Rain, Amézaga's Thunder Strikes Nats

Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez can't hold onto the ball as he commits a fielding error and Washington Nationals' Willie Harris reaches first base in the third inning during a baseball game at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Wednesday, July 2, 2008. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez can't hold onto the ball as he commits a fielding error and Washington Nationals' Willie Harris reaches first base in the third inning during a baseball game at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Wednesday, July 2, 2008. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (Lynne Sladky - AP)

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

MIAMI, July 2 -- Both Paul Lo Duca, 36, and Odalis Pérez, 31, have played baseball long enough to learn the patterns of its calendar; they understand their sport -- on at least some level -- is a business, and they know that baseball is a business more than ever in July.

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During the offseason, both signed with the Washington Nationals as free agents. Both saw opportunities with their new team. Both -- in the months since -- have come to realize that they might not remain with their new team much longer.

On Wednesday, in a 4-2 loss to the Florida Marlins at Dolphin Stadium, two of Washington's most tradable pieces looked like assets just in time for the frenzied summer period when just a little success can send you a long way. A 95-minute rain delay and a resulting blown lead from the bullpen cost Pérez a victory and Lo Duca a game-deciding RBI hit, but it hardly obscured the reality: Pérez's and Lo Duca's contributions these days are important even when they don't lead to victories. Given how economics govern the month leading to the July 31 trade deadline, this was a day when Pérez and Lo Duca showed worth, which is worthwhile to Washington, too.

Pérez pitched 6 2/3 innings, but the rain, not the Marlins' lineup, knocked him out. When he left, he'd thrown just 77 pitches (53 strikes) and yielded two runs and five hits.

Lo Duca, meantime, went 5 for 11 in the series, using a second-inning single to drive in Washington's only runs. One day after catching, two days after playing left field, Lo Duca started at first base. Though he lacks a natural fit right now in Washington's everyday lineup, he started every game this series by squeezing into whatever spot the Nationals could find to showcase him.

After the game, Lo Duca and Pérez -- like the rest of their teammates -- packed their bags for Cincinnati. Neither has expressed any desire to play elsewhere.

"Nothing is a certainty, but I'm still here, and I want an opportunity and I want to win," Lo Duca said.

"I'm happy here. For now I'm happy here," said Pérez, who has a 1.69 ERA in two starts since coming off the disabled list. "We'll see what happens at the trade deadline. I am not concerned and worrying about getting traded. I just need to get the ball every five days and keep pitching the way I'm pitching. But baseball is a business, and if I'm doing my job and somebody needs my help, you know, whatever happens, happens."

That Pérez and Lo Duca find themselves in similar positions is fitting, because their careers have long followed similar arcs. Both broke into the major leagues in 1998. They were teammates in Los Angeles with the Dodgers from 2002 to 2004. This year, both have spent time on the disabled list. Now, both are trying to prove that they're back to full strength.

Pérez, in particular, looked sharp -- and he felt his edge from the moment he warmed up. He felt none of the lingering soreness from shoulder tendinitis that forced him to miss more than three weeks. Against the Marlins, Pérez threw strikes on 21 of his first 23 pitches. He didn't allow a base runner until the fourth. In the fifth, he survived a leadoff double by recording three consecutive outs.

"He threw an unbelievable amount of strikes, and he had great command of his fastball," Manager Manny Acta said. "He was able to spot it in and out, and had a good change-up going. He threw all of his pitches for strikes. He kept his pitch count down. He looked like he could have gone all the way if not for the rain."

In the sixth inning, an army of gray clouds marched in. When lightning and thunder cracked, the crowd at Dolphin Stadium -- made up almost entirely of kids' summer camp groups -- let out a collective, high-octave horror movie yelp.

An inning later, a thick rain broke. Groundskeepers wrestled the tarp to the infield. Kids fled the stands in rushed single-file rows. Most important for Washington, Pérez's afternoon faced a premature end.

When play resumed, Acta had to use his bullpen. Charlie Manning came in with the Nationals leading 2-1. There were two outs. Florida had a runner on second. Three pitches later, Florida had the lead. No. 8 hitter Alfredo Amézaga smoked a Manning fastball over the left field wall.

After the game, a contrite Manning apologized to Pérez for spoiling the win. But Pérez told him not to worry about it. "It's baseball," he said.

"He feels bad," Pérez said. "But things happen in the game. Sometimes he'll come in, get two or three outs, and sometimes he'll come in and not do the job. Next time comes by, he'll get the job done."

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