By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009
CHICAGO, Aug. 27 -- Mike MacDougal is 6 feet 4, 190 pounds -- maybe 175 if you give him a shave. He is not a huffing, puffing, big burly closer. He's the 2-D figure that kids draw in third-grade art class -- a mop of hair with toothpick limbs. As a basic rule, men of such description do not record the final outs of baseball games.
But the Washington Nationals, slowly, are learning about MacDougal. They are learning how he whiplashes hitters with one of the game's unlikeliest fastballs, and how he doggedly uses one pitch again and again. They are also learning how he protects leads. To date, he does this better -- far better -- than anybody else they've found. If he keeps it up, he'll retain the closer's job for 2010.
So take note of what MacDougal did on Thursday, in Washington's 5-4 escape against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He halted a Chicago comeback that looked inevitable. When interim manager Jim Riggleman called on MacDougal in a one-run game, much about Washington's afternoon -- and its mood -- hung in the balance. Already, the team had lost catalyst center fielder Nyjer Morgan to a season-ending hand injury. [See story, D7.] The Nationals, aiming to take two of three from the Cubs, hadn't gotten a hit since the third inning. Their 5-0 lead had slipped. Five outs remained.
"Five outs," Riggleman said. "In today's world, that's a lot for a closer."
MacDougal has learned he does his best work by narrowing his attention to what matters, or rather, to what's immediately in front of him. Riggleman said earlier Thursday that "it's a great time for us to get a read on some guys, to see if Mike is part of the future here," but MacDougal, for his part, almost laughed when asked about next year's role. It was the reaction of someone who's just been asked to predict lottery numbers.
Much can happen. MacDougal, 32, a former all-star with a lively fastball and a history of sporadic wildness, began the year with the White Sox. He was released in May. He signed a minor league deal with the Nationals, who were already looking for their fourth closer, after Joel Hanrahan and Kip Wells and Julián Tavárez foundered in the role.
On this afternoon, Washington's momentum barely lasted three innings. The Nationals started with a Morgan walk, two Morgan stolen bases, a Cristian Guzmán RBI double and a screaming Ryan Zimmerman homer to left. Three batters in, they had a 3-0 lead, and by the top of the third, when Adam Dunn walloped a homer to center, they were up 5-0.
But then a few things happened. Chicago starter Randy Wells settled down. The Nationals failed to get a hit the rest of the day. Meantime, the Cubs crawled back. Homers by Aramis Ramírez and Derrek Lee woke them up, and in the seventh, they nearly tied the game when Sean Burnett uncorked a wild pitch with a runner on third.
Thankfully for the Nationals, catcher Josh Bard scrambled about 15 feet to his right and shuffled a pass to Burnett, covering home. The left-hander applied the tag on Lee, who was called out at home.
Burnett started the eighth, too, and recorded the first out against left-handed hitter Kosuke Fukudome. But that's when Riggleman called on MacDougal, a closer who, at that moment, had converted 13 of 14 save opportunities and compiled a 2.08 ERA since joining the Nationals. Though MacDougal is working to develop his slider, he's still, essentially, a one-pitch specialist. He throws his fastball -- with an average speed of 95.9 mph -- 94.9 percent of the time. He keeps it low, and this year, for a change, he keeps it around the strike zone.
"He just tries to throw it as hard as he can, down, and let the ball do what it does," Bard said. "He's got a one-in-a-billion arm."
No longer do save opportunities create automatic agony for the 2009 Nationals, and it's because of MacDougal. In the eighth, he retired two batters -- Alfonso Soriano and Jake Fox -- on five pitches, all strikes.
MacDougal began the ninth with a walk -- "a no-no," the closer later said -- but kept the ball low, looking for a double play. Even when Sam Fuld advanced to second on a wild pitch with one out, MacDougal thought about groundball outs, not strikeouts. There's a reason his strikeout rate, after all, is about half of what it was in 2003.
"I've changed my game a little bit," MacDougal said. "That's kind of what you have to do as you play. You have to constantly change. You can't just stick with the same thing every day. I've been working real hard on my control; that's been probably my biggest thing this year, my control has been pretty good. And I've been trying to keep the ball down. I haven't thrown a ton of sliders, but I think I've picked my moments."
The game ended with groundouts, and the tying run never got closer than 180 feet away. Ryan Theriot bounced to third, and then, for the final out, Milton Bradley rolled a grounder to second. MacDougal accepted congratulations from Bard on the mound, and turned toward the celebratory handshake line that had formed near second base bag.
His day's work: Five outs, no hits, 27 pitches, all fastballs between 92 and 97 mph.