Phils Get to Balester, Skid Gets to 12

Ryan Zimmerman is tagged out at the plate by the Phillies' Chris Coste in the first inning of what became Washington's 12th straight loss.
Ryan Zimmerman is tagged out at the plate by the Phillies' Chris Coste in the first inning of what became Washington's 12th straight loss. (By Tom Mihalek -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 20 -- After his latest start, Collin Balester talked for six minutes, and on 13 occasions he spoke of the "zone." Several times, he used the phrase "down in the zone," and he spoke of it with a dogged yearning, because until his pitches get there, Balester will stomach more nights like this one.

More often, Balester used the phrase "up in the zone," which is where his worst pitches go, his chronic problem. Only now that he is growing in the big leagues does he realize it.

"I've got to get it down in the zone every pitch instead of five out of 10 or whatever it is," he said. "That's what is killing me."

For Balester, it has become like a rule by now. He goes three strong innings, once through the lineup, as batters feel him out. He fails to drop his pitches. And by the middle innings, having made just one adjustment, batters make Balester pay.

Again Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park, in Balester's latest start, those few strong innings receded right on schedule; as Balester hit the middle of the game, the critical mistakes rushed in, flooding everything and carrying the helpless Washington Nationals to a 4-0 loss to Philadelphia, their 12th defeat in a row.

To be sure, Balester's struggles are modest compared to his team's relentless badness, and they're almost immaterial, too, because if the Nationals couldn't score in the first inning Wednesday (when five batters came to the plate and four reached base), then it really didn't matter if Balester impersonated Bob Gibson. As it was, Balester went six innings, allowing four runs, three earned.

He pitched well enough to win. But more importantly, he finished the night with a better understanding of his greatest deficiency.

Balester is Washington's youngest starter. Since the all-star break, he has also been its best, at least judging by ERA. But two months into his major league career, he has found a hurdle. Against the Phillies, he allowed all of his earned runs and six of his seven hits in the fourth and fifth innings.

Entering Wednesday night's game, batters seeing Balester for the first time were hitting .197 against him, but the second time through the order, that average hopped to .286. It all means one thing: Major league hitters are adjusting to Balester faster than the rookie can adjust to them.

It all traces back to Balester's command, pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. You can beat a hitter the first time with a bad pitch. But the second time around, he'll adapt.

Facing batters in the first three innings, Balester will get popups or deep fly balls, as he did Wednesday. But given another chance, hitters either lay off the "borderline stuff," as St. Claire called it, causing Balester to fall behind in the count. Or, they can wait on the high stuff and blast it.

"The fact of the matter is, you can't be working that high up in the strike zone," St. Claire said. "He has to get down. . . . So that's the adjustment he's got to make."

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