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Despite Detwiler, Down to Defeat
Solid Start Done In By Defense, Bullpen : Pirates 12, Nationals 7

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Six professional pitchers performed for the Washington Nationals last night. One had been promoted from Class AA Harrisburg earlier in the day, for the purposes of a cameo start. The remaining cast of pitchers, once the 23-year-old exited, promptly initiated a furious bidding war for his return ticket to the minors.

Had the Nationals not furnished Ross Detwiler's first major league start with the exact sort of defense and relief pitching one finds in the Eastern League, he would have earned a win and some well-deserved appreciation. Instead, the Nationals committed four errors. Their bullpen, allowing nine earned runs in four innings, dynamited the lead Detwiler left behind. With an impromptu replication of Class AA fundamentals, Washington lost to the Pirates, 12-7, at Nationals Park, dropping its fifth straight and obscuring the promise supplied by its former first-round pick.

"I thought Ross did a great job for his first major league start," reliever Garrett Mock said. "He pitched well enough to get a win, and I hate that I didn't do my job."

Several in the bullpen might soon lose their jobs. In the span of four hitters, Mock allowed more earned runs (three) than Detwiler allowed in five innings. Handed a 5-3 lead entering the sixth, Mock opened with the walk-wild pitch-hit batter trifecta. When Pittsburgh's Jack Wilson sliced a double down the left field line, the game was tied. The equally ineffective Jesús Colome replaced Mock and served up three more hits (including two doubles), and before the inning was over, Pittsburgh had scored five runs and the 14,549 were offering mock applause for the unexpected delights, such as routine fly ball outs.

After the loss, Manager Manny Acta hinted that the next batch of bullpen replacements might be coming. Perhaps Mike MacDougal and Jason Bergmann, just to name two candidates, will arrive from Class AAA Syracuse and provide help. Perhaps nobody can provide help. Either way, the Nationals will try. The team, after all, scored five runs yesterday in the bottom of the fifth, breaking loose against Ross Ohlendorf with doubles from Willie Harris and Josh Bard, then with two-out homers from Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman. Like that, they had a 5-3 lead. Detwiler, watching from the dugout, had the chance for a win.

The bullpen doors opened. The lead disappeared.

"Again," Acta said, "it was just sad to see the way things are going with our bullpen. I've been in the game for a while, and I've never seen anything like it. We're just going to have to change the mind-set over there. Some things have to change. Just change it up, because it's not working. We went from young guys to veteran guys and veterans or young, they're not getting it done."

Among Washington's pitchers yesterday, Detwiler was singularly effective. This was his first big league appearance since a token inning in September 2007, an obligatory thank-you to a kid who'd been pitching at Missouri State months earlier. But yesterday he looked ready and suggested that more big league starts, at least in the not-so-distant future, might be merited.

Most important, he threw strikes. Lots of them. His first seven pitches were strikes. So were 33 of his first 44. Few Pirates hit him hard. He worked efficiently, throwing 84 pitches (and 61 strikes) in his five innings -- and that's despite losing three outs to fielding errors.

No matter the defense behind him, Detwiler never buckled. When Cristian Guzmán booted two grounders in the first inning, it merely gave Detwiler the chance for a 1-2-3-4-5 first inning, two runners stranded on base. Pittsburgh's only runs against him came all at once in the third, when Craig Monroe, with two aboard, lifted a fly ball to center that never quite had the trajectory of a home run until it skimmed the top of the wall, just inches away from a leaping Willie Harris.

"He did a tremendous job," Acta said. "He threw the ball very well for us. No walks, which is exactly the thing we wanted him to do. We just wanted him to pound the strike zone, and he did that."

"The biggest thing for me was the no walks and the strike-to-ball ratio," Detwiler said.

Detwiler remains in the developmental middle ground, equally apt to falter or lift off. Drafted sixth overall in 2007, he's a veteran of two professional seasons. Proclamations won't come for at least another year. How Detwiler pitches in the interim will determine whether the Nationals have possession of a first-round bust or another future starting pitcher.

If Detwiler performs as he did in 2008 (where he took a 5.86 ERA into July with Class A Potomac) or as he did this spring (when he was among the first group of cuts, along with guys such as Bobby Brownlie and Javier Herrera), the promise of his career will fizzle. If he performs as he has this year, during which he maintained a 2.96 ERA in six starts with Harrisburg, a role in Washington's future should crystallize.

Still, Detwiler will be given every chance to ascend. When Detwiler returns to the minors, he won't return to Class AA Harrisburg. He'll head to Class AAA Syracuse. His major league start was merely a layover en route to a promotion.

"A good mile marker is when you're 23 years old and you're performing well at a Class AA level," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "That means that you're a guy. So, he's progressed to that point, and like I said, this is a spot start. He's certainly still in a developmental stage in his career. He's got really good stuff, and we don't want to rush him. But we certainly don't want to retard his progress."

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