By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
NEW YORK, June 16 -- The Washington Nationals treat quality with a predatory intolerance. Go ahead, give them a quality pitching performance, watch what happens. They constrict it, cut off its oxygen supply, bury it under mounds of lousy bullpen work and lousier defense. They leave quality for dead.
That's regrettable, because almost every night over the last month, the youngest rotation in baseball has pitched the sort of ballgames that should be utilized. On Tuesday, 22-year-old Shairon Martis walked into a $1.5 billion stadium, opposed a $161 million pitcher, stared down the toughest lineup of his career, and proved worthy of every challenge.
What happened? He left after six innings, handed his teammates a lead and watched the ruination begin. Because of relief pitching and defense, the Nationals, at the new Yankee Stadium, lost to the Yankees, 5-3, and deprived Martis the satisfaction he deserved.
Granted, Martis knows the postgame script for a pitcher who doesn't win but should have. Life and $201 million payrolls are unfair. Martis, like the other rookie starters, knows he'll be judged not by wins and losses, but by how he handles himself -- how he pushes through six innings when he has five-inning stuff, how he keeps his cool with the bases loaded and yes, how he deals with disappointments.
"It's not the first time, but there are more coming, too," Martis said after this one, where he threw 106 pitches and let in two runs, one earned. "So you just have to go with the flow."
Entering the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals led 3-2 and Martis was in line for a win. The Nationals had a chance to snap a three-game losing streak. But with Ron Villone on in relief, everything crumbled.
After Villone gave up a leadoff single, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano hit, respectively, game-tying and go-ahead doubles. Teixeira's was crushed, just off the bare hand of a sprinting Elijah Dukes in left-center. Cano's was ripped right at Dukes, who somehow managed to avoid it with a misguided charge and then a too-late backpedal. The ball sailed just over his mitt, and the Yankees took a 4-3 lead, which would expand again one inning later.
That's how the Nationals lost their 16th in 19 games. They squandered Anderson Hernández's three-run homer against CC Sabathia, which helped the Nationals grab a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth. Most important, they squandered the chance to finally reward one of their young starters with a win.
For the last month, Washington has watched its young starters do plenty right and get little in return. Since May 17, the Nationals have relied on a rotation with one second-year pitcher and four rookies. That group has since started 27 games, going at least five innings in 25 of them. Washington's starters have a 4.84 ERA since May 17, and a 3.46 ERA since June 1. In this 27-game span, the starters have, collectively, one win.
"They've been able to handle it," Manager Manny Acta said. "I think our coaching staff does a good job to let them know it doesn't go unnoticed. We're building something here with that rotation and every five days a guy like Martis goes out there and gives us this type of effort. You're right -- some of them, probably, would want to have one or two more wins and they don't have it. But still, they continue to pitch well for us, so they're handling it okay so far."
On this night, Martis went to work with a lively sinker and just a few jitters. He made it work despite everything. Despite the five walks and the choppy defense behind him. Despite the Yankees lineup that doesn't give occasion for a breather, not with a future Hall of Famer (Derek Jeter) batting leadoff, a .294 hitter (Melky Cabrera) batting ninth, and five guys with double-digit homer totals wedged in between. You don't cruise through lineups like that, just like you don't cruise through obstacle courses.
But Martis weaved and dodged. That bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second netted the Yankees just one run, and two misplays by Washington's corner infielders one inning later -- an open invitation for a big inning -- netted only an unearned run. Walks aside, Martis was Sabathia's equal. And he showed a bounce-back ability. He entered the sixth inning having already thrown 98 pitches, then retired the side in order.
"He was a little concerned of getting hit," catcher Wil Nieves said. "In this ballpark, the ball flies. But he stayed with his game. He was keeping it down, keeping the hitters off balance, and I was pretty impressed."
"He kept us in the game and he did more than that," Villone said. "He showed some serious poise out there. Beyond his years, I think. That's all you can do. He deserved better, and I went out there and blew the game. He deserves way better."