By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009
Maybe you've heard that the Washington Nationals have the worst bullpen in the major leagues. True enough, though that collection of relievers didn't quite obey the role last night. Fact is, they know they are the worst, they've heard it from friends, they've heard it from one another, and being the very worst is now the reference point for everything they do. It gives license for their pledged nothing-to-lose attitude, which at least one member, Joel Hanrahan, is still trying to master. It also makes performances like the one yesterday -- when the bullpen pitched four scoreless innings, before Hanrahan capitulated in extra innings -- so excruciating.
An improved bullpen helped the Nationals keep the game close. Only a perfect one would have allowed them to win it.
And improvement, in the wake of Washington's 3-1, 10-inning loss last night at Nationals Park against the New York Mets, was little consolation. The Nationals don't need improvement so much as they need a stinking victory. They've now lost three in a row and 18 of 21. They realize the difference between a reasonably good game (like this one) and a game that actually does them some good.
"I'm really fed up with it," said Ron Villone, one of those relievers. "I'm tired of losing. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of seeing people shake heads. I think we all have to focus on what we can all do. There's nothing else left. There's no fingers to point either. It's all of us.
"I feel we're getting [upset]," he continued. "I guess it's starting to hurt now. Instead of being, 'Aw, [darn], we lost another game, we can come back tomorrow,' it's starting to just hurt. Maybe lost a little sleep tonight, too. Because we don't set out to come out and play a close ballgame and lose it. We just haven't freaking won. That's all I can say."
In many respects, the story of Washington's bullpen -- and its turnaround -- begins with Villone. Signed to a minor league contract in April, promoted to the big leagues on May 7, Villone, 39, has an 88 mph fastball and 98 mph confidence. Others in the bullpen have taken notice. Since May 20, the Nationals' bullpen has shown great improvement, combining for a 3.09 ERA. Villone, who has yet to allow a run in 18 appearances, has anchored that success.
"You go out and watch [Villone], and he doesn't care," Hanrahan said several days ago. "He says, 'Here's my stuff. Here you go.' It's something I've kind of picked up on. I've been working on kind of trying to become [a jerk]. I've got a little of the 'RV' in me where you just go out and say [screw] it. It's something I've been trying to work on. When you get onto the mound, you've got to act like a jerk, almost."
By the time Hanrahan came on in the 10th inning of a 1-1 tie last night, the Nationals, especially their pitchers, had demonstrated an unflappable attitude. Shairon Martis, the starter, shook off a few ugly defensive plays behind him -- including two from Adam Dunn in left -- and battled through five innings with one run.
The bullpen ratcheted up the intensity.
Jason Bergmann pitched a scoreless sixth.
Villone recorded an out in the seventh, departing for righty Mike MacDougal, who struck out pinch-hitter Gary Sheffield on three pitches -- all fastballs of at least 96 mph.
Joe Beimel escaped the eighth by striking out Fernando Martinez with the bases loaded.
Even Hanrahan eased through the ninth on eight pitches.
The issue, then, became how Hanrahan handled matters in the 10th. Washington's closer has two pitches, a dominant fastball and a slider. Ahead 0-2 on the inning's first hitter. Luis Castillo, Hanrahan tried a low slider. Castillo singled between first and second on the ground. He then walked Carlos Beltrán, and served up a 2-2 fastball to David Wright that was smeared into right-center, scoring New York's two decisive runs.
After the game, Manager Manny Acta commented that Hanrahan threw too many sliders, and he promised to talk with his right-hander today about the matter. "He continued to have so much more confidence in that slider than in that 95 mph fastball," Acta said.
But Hanrahan saw things differently. His confidence is sometimes a work-in-progress -- He's not an "RV" just yet -- but on this particular night, he felt all right with both pitches. "I threw a lot of fastballs today. The pitch to Wright was a fastball. You get in a situation where you get a chance to strike a guy out, and I tried to strike Castillo out with a slider. It was on the ground, almost, and he hit it. I threw [a fastball] to Wright that I over-threw. I don't have a different confidence in either one of those pitches."