By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009
If Ross Detwiler lasts much longer in the big leagues, he'll forfeit the memory space for every big moment. Already, he's started two games. He's thrown 180 pitches. He's not like some golfer who remembers every nuance. "But especially at this level," Detwiler said, "I remember a lot of them."
Right now, the Washington Nationals need nuances. Only when they zoom in -- only when they preoccupy themselves with the rare, detailed high points -- can they forget, at least briefly, that every night they're painting the same old mess with the same old brushstrokes.
Last night, the Nationals, in front of 31,833 at Nationals Park, fell to the Orioles, 2-1. Detwiler lasted six innings and looked dominant for about 90 percent of that time; he looked, more than ever, like a certified big-leaguer, holding the Orioles to one hit, never collapsing when he faced a jam, and holding his velocity deep into the night.
For the Nationals, their rookie's performance created the worthwhile subtext to another otherwise helpless night. Their bats went to sleep. They grounded into two double plays in the final four innings. Their bullpen made one mistake when it couldn't afford any, resulting in pinch hitter Aubrey Huff's go-ahead RBI triple in the seventh inning. They've now lost nine of 10 on this 11-game homestand.
To find anything that doesn't hurt to look at, one must narrow the view. One must zoom in, pick out a few details and savor them. Zoom in, and watch centerfielder Justin Maxwell climb the wall, robbing Adam Jones of a home run. Zoom in, and watch Detwiler stare down Jones in the third, trying to save himself with the bases loaded and one out. Zoom in, and watch Detwiler face Jones for the third time, still strong as he nears the finish line.
Zoom in, and remember three at-bats -- Detwiler versus Jones.
At least of late, Jones has been Baltimore's best hitter. He began the game with a .372 average, boosted by 17 hits in his previous 38 at-bats. As for Detwiler? This was just his second big league start. When he took the mound, he had no guarantee of a third.
PART I (The Catch): Jones is Baltimore's No. 2 hitter, which meant Detwiler, 23, had thrown all of four pitches in the first when the right-hander dug in. He found an immediate hole, starting off with two balls. Detwiler couldn't afford another, and tried a fastball low and over the plate. "I just wanted to get a strike in there," he said.
Jones unloaded, sending the pitch to deep center, where only some Hollywood special effects could keep it in play. Thankfully, Detwiler had Maxwell. As the pitcher swiveled to watch, Maxwell was already running. "This guy is just a natural center fielder," Manager Manny Acta said.
Maxwell had trained himself well. He reached the warning track, took a plant step and climbed the wall. He was about 390 feet away from home plate, about three feet off the ground, and still about three feet short of Jones's fly ball. His left arm -- fully extended, flung over the fence -- made up for the difference. As Maxwell pulled the ball back, robbing Jones of the home run, his Spiderman grab had either entered, or flat-out ended, the discussion for best catch in Nationals history.
"Unbelievable," Detwiler said. "With Maxwell, there's always a chance it will be caught no matter where it is."
That catch jump-started Detwiler's night, and saved him from his biggest mistake. The lefty finished the inning 1-2-3. He thanked his centerfielder as they came off the field.
PART II (The Escape): The third inning should have been easy, and Jones never should have batted. Detwiler was supposed to face the bottom third of Baltimore's order, which features a light-hitting catcher (Gregg Zaun), a lighter-hitting shortstop (César Izturis), and a pitcher who'd never hit in his life (Koji Uehara). Detwiler, entering the frame, had faced 28 big league hitters this year. He had walked none.
So much for that. Detwiler "lost his release point," Acta said, and walked Zaun. Though he forced Izturis into an out, he then walked Uehara on four pitches. Said Detwiler: "When the pitcher came up I was just trying to guide the ball in there. I was like 88 mph or 89. I was at my best today when I was 91 plus."
Detwiler threw four more balls to the leadoff hitter, Brian Roberts, walking the bases loaded and whoops -- guess who was suddenly up? Jones. With one out.
But this time around, Detwiler did everything just right. He calmed down, thanks to a Josh Bard mound visit. He jumped ahead 1-2. After fighting through two fouls, he tried a high fastball, 94 mph, and Jones whiffed for strike three. Though Baltimore scored its lone run when the next hitter, Nick Markakis, got a flukish infield hit, Detwiler, following the game, recounted this Jones at-bat as his best.
"Probably just because I was the proudest of just getting out of that inning giving up one run," he said.
PART III (The Exclamation Point): The sixth inning, where Detwiler faced Jones for the final time, was the lefty's last. And still he was going strong, which encouraged Acta as much as any previous jam. As Jones led off this time, Detwiler had retired the side in four of his five innings. Here, he set the tone for a final scoreless frame by striking out Jones on four pitches, treating him to nothing but fastballs. The final one, again, was 94 mph.
"I felt great the entire time," Detwiler said. "Never once was fatigued or anything."
"What I'm impressed about is the stuff that he's shown," Acta said. "That is what we envisioned when he drafted him. Even he threw some pitches today that were 95 mph, and threw some good change-ups today. So I hope he can continue to build his confidence."