Loss Is One to Grow On; Belliard Injured

Shairon Martis, making his major league debut for the Nationals, takes a breather after walking the bases loaded in the fourth inning. He escaped by allowing just one run.
Shairon Martis, making his major league debut for the Nationals, takes a breather after walking the bases loaded in the fourth inning. He escaped by allowing just one run. (By John Amis -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

ATLANTA, Sept. 4 -- They dedicated this night to experience, to a net gain. Before the two rookies stepped onto a major league field on Thursday night, the first pitcher-catcher battery to debut in tandem since 1999, Luke Montz sidled next to Shairon Martis. There in the Washington Nationals' dugout, just the two of them, they talked about nerves. Montz felt them. Martis tried not to.

"You okay?" Montz said.

It became a prescient question, applicable for the rest of the night, and not just because of Martis's erratic but sufficient debut in a 2-0 loss to Atlanta at Turner Field. For the entire game, plenty wasn't okay. Certainly not with first baseman Ronnie Belliard, who limped off the field in the seventh inning with a right groin strain, which will likely end his season. Certainly not with the Washington offense, shut out for the 21st time this year. Because of that, the Nationals lost the first game of this nine-game road trip and tinged a night for gain with a feeling of loss.

"It's tough, you know," said a somber Belliard, who'd pulled up lame while running out an infield single, his third hit of the night.

On the same night a season likely ended -- Belliard will have an MRI exam today, but "as of now," Manager Manny Acta said, "it might look like he's done for the year" -- two careers began. Not since Sept. 1, 1999, when Colorado catcher Ben Petrick and pitcher Luther Hackman both took the field together, had a starting battery jointly debuted.

Martis took the loss, but pitched well enough, showing at least some of the resourcefulness he's gained while pitching for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic (2006) and the Beijing Olympics (2008). When he struck out Atlanta's first batter, Gregor Blanco, pitching coach Randy St. Claire yelled for Martis's attention, demanding him to throw the ball into the dugout -- a keepsake.

After that, Martis was throwing balls of a different sort -- half of his 92 pitches missed the strike zone. But always, Montz later said, Martis made the necessary pitch. Even when a Lastings Milledge misplay in center field cost him a run in the third, or even when he walked the bases loaded in the fourth, he stayed calm. He lasted five innings, and gave up two runs despite five walks.

"Five innings," Acta said. "If a guy can make it out there for five innings without hurting his confidence or embarrassing himself or the team, I think it's a plus."

Montz and Martis formed a distinctive union, not just because of their debuts, but because of the context behind them. Martis is 21, the youngest on Washington's roster, called up this month as a reward for his minor league season. The team thinks he's a future starter. Since the Nationals acquired him in the Mike Stanton trade with San Francisco on July 28, 2006, Martis has turned promise into results, leading the organization in 2007 in wins (14). "He made a very fast progression," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

Montz is 25. He made a slower journey to the majors. The team didn't even invite him this spring to big league camp. He didn't figure into the Nationals' plans. His 2008 season, split between Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Columbus (.271, 16 home runs), forced the reconsideration. Only this Wednesday did he meet Acta.

"He came a long way this year," Acta said, "and he's going to get a shot now. It looks like he was a late-bloomer."

Strange enough, then, that both parts of this battery took comfort from their shared experiences. The two played together with Class A Potomac for much of 2007, again in the higher minor league levels this year. Well before Thursday, they knew each other well. Each knew the other's preferences and pacing and potential problems. Montz knew that Martis likes to work quickly. He also had a tendency to let the little problems roil him. Mistakes, especially walks, "really eat him up," Montz said.

So Montz's goal, for this game? Don't let Martis get too worked up. Some sick sense of humor, that the catcher buzzing with nerves had to keep somebody else calm.

"I believe we both started out pretty nervous," Montz said. "I kind of had a butterfly in me."

Montz went 0 for 3, but blocked a few pitches and threw a runner out in the eighth, helping Washington keep the game close. But on this night, even close was a margin the lineup couldn't erase.

In the series between these two teams last weekend, Washington scored seven or more every time. Here, facing starter James Parr, also making his major league debut, the Nationals looked like the rookies. Parr yielded two hits in six innings. No Washington player advanced to third. When Ryan Zimmerman started the ninth with a double, the next three Nationals struck out against closer Mike Gonzalez.

Nationals Notes: Pitcher Shawn Hill will have arthroscopic surgery today on his right elbow, performed by orthopedist James Andrews in Gulf Breeze, Fla. . . . Collin Balester, scratched from today's start because of a mild left glut strain, thinks he'll be ready to go by Tuesday, when the team opens its series against the Mets.

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