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."
Too many times this season, Balester's starts have reinforced a familiar pattern. The previous time out, on Aug. 14, he held the Mets hitless through three; they scored in each of his last three innings. On July 6, Balester's second start, he held the Reds hitless through three; they pounded him for five runs in the next two innings.
The good in Balester's starts indicates what Washington thinks he can become. The bad indicates what he still must learn. He is 22, after all, and he won't hit 23 until he has been roughed up a few more times.
Wednesday, the Phillies needed a few innings to turn the near misses into runs. Balester survived the first two innings with no hits but plenty of deep fly balls, one of which drove Lastings Milledge to the warning track, and one that slammed a leaping Austin Kearns against the right field wall.
In the third, the Phillies scored an unearned run -- a double play should have ended the inning, but shortstop Anderson Hernández's throw tailed above first base -- but still didn't have a hit.
Yet by the fifth inning, Philadelphia was ready to make up for it. The Phillies' lineup greeted Balester with a single, homer, single, single, double stampede. The only out Balester recorded in that stretch came against opposing pitcher Brett Myers. Two batters earlier, Philadelphia's Greg Dobbs opened up a 3-0 lead by blasting a high fastball over the right field fence.
"I've learned a lot," Balester said. "In the minor leagues I don't think you learn a lot. You throw a pitch up in the zone and you get away with it. You think you maybe did good, but you really didn't. You kind of get a false sense of things. . . . Say I pitch one game [in the minors], I'm up in the zone but I throw six shutout innings. I think, 'Oh, I'm doing so good! Why am I not getting called up?' But [the team] knows I'm up in the zone.
"So, I've just got to fight to get that pitch down, that's all. . . . It's not even a 'maybe' thing. You've got to do it."