For Nats, Trouble From the Start

Washington Nationals pitcher Jason Bergmann walks off the field after being relieved in the third inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, Sept. 5, 2008, at Turner Field in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gregory Smith)
Washington Nationals pitcher Jason Bergmann walks off the field after being relieved in the third inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Friday, Sept. 5, 2008, at Turner Field in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gregory Smith) (Gregory Smith - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008

ATLANTA, Sept. 5 -- Jason Bergmann disappeared Friday night in shorter time than did the ripples of his outing. Down he went midway through the third inning, the sort of exit you only make when leaving behind something ugly. Bergmann handed the ball to Manager Manny Acta and walked, glove in hand, to the Washington dugout. His hat brim was pulled low. He looked like he had just swallowed a lead pipe. When he got within arm's length of the dugout bench, he greeted it with a few pounds from his fist.

The steps Bergmann took between the mound and the dugout bridged, quite tangibly, one damaging outing with the uncertainty that lies ahead. Bergmann's 2 1/3 innings Friday resonated well after Bergmann departed, and not just because the three batters he left on base all scored, helping to finish off what became an 10-5 Atlanta rout against Washington at Turner Field. Bergmann's latest unsteady appearance also resonated because of its wider implications. Bergmann is pitching right now to prove himself worthy of a rotation spot in 2009. Games like this don't flatter his candidacy.

"I was extremely [upset]," Bergmann said. "I don't want to have the whole year ruined on a couple of bad starts here at the end."

Bergmann (2-11) retired eight Atlanta hitters, which was the extent of the good news. He also allowed seven runs, three scoring after Marco Estrada replaced him. He gave up five hits, struck out two and walked three. Atlanta disposed of him with a mix of hitting and observation. Sure, the Braves swung: Three consecutive batters started the third with hits. But they also just watched. As Bergmann's troubles mounted, so did his wildness -- his most chronic problem.

With Atlanta leading 2-1 in the third, runners on second and third, Bergmann walked Chipper Jones -- a move of apparent intent. But then, after a sacrifice fly, Bergmann walked shortstop Yunel Escobar on five pitches. The bases were again loaded.

He started out the next batter, Casey Kotchman, with two balls. The pressure tightened. His catcher, Wil Nieves, headed to the mound for a quick chat. Bergmann came back with two strikes, then worked the count full. Before the payoff pitch, he removed his cap, brushed his brow and took a deep breath.

One final delivery.

High and outside.

Bergmann finished his follow-through by twirling in disgust, clenching his right arm against his hip.

And that was it.

Whether he'll get more chances this year as a starter remains to be seen. Asked about Bergmann's rotation spot for the rest of the year, Acta promised nothing.

"We think here, we don't react to situations. So we're just going to go to sleep, and whenever we make a decision -- if we do -- believe me, you guys will find out," he said. "We're going to sit down and we're going to think it through, and then we'll make a decision whether to give a kid a chance to start, whether it's to keep Jason. We're not going to make a decision based on the poor outing he had today."

Bergmann's season, to date, has yielded an inconclusive statement. Some starts show what he can be. More recent starts show what he too often is. Three straight outings in May, Bergmann didn't allow a run. Three straight outings in June, he allowed just one earned run. But in his last five starts, Bergmann has pitched a total of 22 1/3 innings. The damage: 26 earned runs, 31 hits, 16 walks, 13 strikeouts and a 10.48 ERA.

"At times he's put together really good streaks this year," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said, "and when you think he's got it, it's like -- he kind of has that step back."

Said General Manager Jim Bowden: "One thing I know about Jason -- at times he's been brilliant, and at times he hasn't been. Certainly at times he's pitched like a guy that can win 12-15, and at other times he hasn't."

By the time Estrada replaced Bergmann, allowing three more runs (two earned) of his own, the game had slowed into tortoise race. The teams used a combined 10 pitchers, and several Atlanta regulars were lifted mid-game, as if playing under the March Florida sun. Washington had opened the day using an assortment of backups -- none of the lineup's final six hitters had more than one home run -- but their contribution was largely moot, given the early deficit. As the game moved, Washington cut a 10-1 deficit to 10-5.

"He can't stop that inning from escalating," St. Claire said of Bergmann, "and so he goes harder and harder and he wants to get better. And you can see it in his face out there: He's getting mad. And that takes you out of your game."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company