New Nats Reliever Beimel Has Evolved Into Role

Ex-Dodger Joe Beimel is envisioned as an 8th-inning caretaker for the Nats.
Ex-Dodger Joe Beimel is envisioned as an 8th-inning caretaker for the Nats. (By Stephen Dunn -- Getty Images)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

VIERA, Fla., March 19 -- The first time Joe Beimel signed a contract, almost 11 years ago, he was a low-risk feel-good story -- a Duquesne kid, drafted by the pro team down the road -- and those stories don't usually have a shelf life. The second and third times Beimel signed with pro teams, he feared for his career. The fourth time Beimel signed, in 2006, it was practically a handout. A last chance. Even the front-office executive who signed him said: "We really didn't know what we were getting. When we brought him in, I was thinking mostly Class AAA."

Beimel signed with his fifth team, the Washington Nationals, on Wednesday. One year, $2 million: biggest salary of his career. Even before he met his new teammates -- Washington expected Beimel to land in Florida late Thursday night -- he already had generated a rush of clubhouse excitement and had been handed his ideal bullpen role.

For the first time in his career, Beimel, 31, inherited a team that expects him and needs him to help. And in a way, that confirmed his accomplishment: In the last few years, the left-hander has reinvented his delivery, boosted his effectiveness, even reformed his lifestyle. That's how a journeyman relinquishes life as a journeyman.

"I could feel it from our players as soon as they found out about the news," Manager Manny Acta said, speaking about the effect of the signing. "They were very excited. Things are getting better quicker than we thought."

The Nationals envision Beimel as their eighth-inning caretaker. He'll be trusted with narrow leads. He'll face lefties and righties alike. If he does his job correctly, he'll create the bridge to closer Joel Hanrahan.

Those close to Beimel spoke on Thursday of an evolution, the only means to keep alive a career that started with few expectations and included many lows. In 1998, Beimel pitched for Duquesne University, a school that, until then, had never produced a drafted baseball player. He had an average fastball and an average curve. One scout, Pittsburgh's Jon Mercurio, saw enough athleticism to take a chance. Beimel was invited to a tryout with the Pirates, whose scouts asked to see his repertoire.

Um, how about a slider?

"I couldn't get him to throw a good slider his whole junior year," said Duquesne Coach Mike Wilson, who also attended the tryout.

Beimel, always reluctant to try his third pitch, threw what Wilson described as "the nastiest slider I've ever seen."

Recalled Wilson: "And I'm thinking, 'Where the hell was that slider all those years?' I think the fact that he had that nasty slider that day -- that's why he got picked by the Pirates."

But it was a tenuous entry into baseball. Pittsburgh selected him in the 18th round, and though Beimel emerged in the big leagues in 2001, at 24, that had more to do with injuries and barren talent around him.

In March 2004, the Pirates released him. He signed with the Twins, who placed him in Class AAA Rochester. His ERA in 49 games: 6.97. The Twins released him, too. He signed with Tampa Bay, where he spent most of 2005 with Class AAA Durham. Again he was released.

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