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For Closer MacDougal, The Fastball Is Just Fine

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009

On June 5, long before Mike MacDougal became the Washington Nationals' closer, and certainly long before the Nationals reached the state of advanced competence where they actually needed a closer, Manager Manny Acta pulled his newest right-hander from the Citi Field bullpen to face New York's Gary Sheffield.

MacDougal, making just his fourth appearance with the Nationals, was ordered to throw nothing but fastballs. He threw three of them -- boomerangs, diving and swerving, all either 96 or 97 mph. Sheffield struck out on three pitches.

That night, in retrospect, explains much about MacDougal's unpredictable rise, all predicated on perhaps the most predictable pitch selection in baseball. MacDougal, armed with a ferocious fastball, now throws almost nothing else. Over his last four appearances, which include two save chances, MacDougal has thrown 62 pitches -- and 60 fastballs. His only exceptions: a June 16 slider to Nick Swisher, of the New York Yankees, and a June 17 pitchout. On Saturday night, when MacDougal threw two more scoreless innings, lowering his ERA with Washington to 0.84, he threw 19 pitches and, yes, 19 fastballs.

Though Acta said MacDougal is permitted to throw other pitches -- he has a decent slider, and will sometimes mix in a curve -- the manager also added: "From Day One I said, 'Hey, you've got a very good fastball. You shouldn't be trying to trick guys.' "

MacDougal always has had the velocity. But he hasn't always had the confidence. In April of this year, while bottoming out with the Chicago White Sox, eventually earning his release, the 32-year-old former all-star threw his slider more than 50 percent of the time. "It was my best pitch," MacDougal said yesterday.

That changed when MacDougal signed a minor league deal with the Nationals and headed to Class AAA Syracuse. Then-Chiefs pitching coach Steve McCatty, now in the same role with Washington, had some advice: In short, your best pitch is good enough to carry your career.

"I didn't have as much confidence in it as before, so he really helped me out with that," MacDougal said.

More Time for González

Before this series, Alberto González, a utility infielder whose natural position is shortstop, had started only one game at second base. But González's recent hitting -- and Washington's need for punch in the bottom of its lineup -- has prompted Acta to search for new ways to use the 26-year-old -- even if it limits the playing time of starting second baseman Anderson Hernández. "Everything is okay with Anderson," Acta said. "Everything is just very good for Alberto."

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