By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009
ST. LOUIS, Aug. 30 -- Garrett Mock spent at least three years chasing stability and a good four major league starts in July chasing any form of decency, but now that he has both -- a firm role in the big leagues, a recent track record that suggests he belongs -- the 26-year-old finds himself searching for something even more elusive. He's chasing consistency. The sort of high-level consistency that separates a solid start from a spectacular one. The sort of consistency that allows you to throw 99 pitches in one afternoon and regret none of them, instead of one.
By almost any appraisal, Mock didn't deserve to lose on Sunday afternoon. He took a two-hitter into the sixth and ended up with a six-inning, two-run day. Maybe starts like that don't beat Adam Wainwright, but few opponents do these days. When the Washington Nationals returned to their clubhouse following Sunday's 2-1 loss against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, which gave St. Louis a three-game sweep, the basic narrative went like this: Mock had pitched well enough to win. And most days, he would have won.
"He did a great job," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "He gave us a chance."
Mock wants more. If consistency is the difference between a six-inning, two-earned run game (Mock) and a six-inning, one-run game (Wainwright), it's also the difference between a 3-6 record (Mock) and a 16-7 record (Wainwright). In the past month, Mock has dropped his ERA from 7.09 to 5.01. Only once in six August starts did he allow more than two earned runs. But Mock has realized one byproduct of the improvement. Once the big mistakes disappear, you notice the small ones.
So after his latest start, Mock stood near his locker and kept talking about one pitch. One pitch in the sixth inning, thrown in a 1-1 game with a runner on second. The count was full, Albert Pujols at bat. Mock wanted to throw his 3-2 fastball low and away, a de facto intentional walk. Instead, it rose belt-high, and Pujols shot a single up the middle to center. It was just the fourth and final St. Louis hit of the afternoon, but it scored Colby Rasmus from second and produced what proved to be the game-winning RBI.
"The pitch that is just absolutely going to cost me some sleep tonight," Mock said.
In this game, a slim margin separated the teams. Working in a nip-and-tuck pitchers' duel, Mock didn't allow a hit until the fourth -- and then came two in a row, leading to St. Louis's first run. Wainwright, throwing at least six innings for the 26th time in a row, didn't allow a baserunner past first until the sixth, when the Nationals finally scored on two walks and Elijah Dukes's RBI single. Washington almost took the lead in the eighth when Josh Willingham clubbed a fly ball to left -- but his liner hit the fence instead of sailing over it, and the Nationals left the bases loaded against reliever Ryan Franklin.
The difference, in the end, was that Pujols single in the sixth. That strike, which should have been a ball.
"When you're trying to throw a ball to arguably the best hitter in baseball -- you're trying to throw a ball in that situation -- and you throw a pitch he can hit, that is the kind of stuff that will make me shave my head down further than it already is and just make me go crazy," Mock said. "I just can't stand it."
Mock, in the moments after this start, hesitated to think much about the big picture. About how he's capitalized on his latest big league opportunity, more so than other rookies in Washington's rotation. Or about how he's established himself as a likely staff member in 2010.
Does he feel like he's established yet?
"But yeah," Mock said. "I'd like to establish myself as a starter."
Mock's back story explains his hesitancy to recognize, or even acknowledge, security. Since 2006, when Mock was acquired in a trade with Arizona, he's been a starter, then a relief pitcher, then a starter again. Last year, he switched between Class AAA and the big leagues five times. This year, he's been up and down twice more -- while converting back to a starter.
"I lived in nine states in 2007," Mock said. "By lived, I mean like one place for more than two weeks. All of my stuff was out somewhere, in a drawer or whatever. Yeah, I lived in nine states. I lived in Florida two or three times, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas."
This year, Mock will likely have six more starts, then the offseason. It will be his first as a bona fide big leaguer. It will also be the first in his new Houston home -- which he purchased a month ago, though he's never been inside.
At this point, Mock said, "houses aren't that big a deal to me. It's a roof and a bed. As many apartments as I've lived in, a roof is all I require."