Estrada Struggles in First Start

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009; 12:35 AM

MIAMI, Sept. 12 -- The first start of Marco Estrada's major league career began too late and ended too early. A pounding rainstorm delayed the outing. A pounding from the Florida Marlins abbreviated it after 13 batters, seven outs, five runs, three walks and 61 pitches. The good news is, if Estrada receives another start, neither the weather nor the ERA (19.29) will get more much worse.

The Washington Nationals' season has long been woebegone, but Saturday, in an 11-3 loss against Florida at Land Shark Stadium, it felt wearisome. Certainly at some point Commissioner Bud Selig's schedule-makers appreciated the idea of a mid-September Saturday night game between division rivals in South Florida. Viewed up close, though, it wasn't pretty. By the time Estrada was pulled, Washington already trailed 5-1. Florida's Aníbal Sánchez, inefficient and walk-prone, was pulled after 4 2/3 innings -- one out shy of a win. Not that Florida's victory was ever in doubt. Just to be sure, of course, Washington reliever Logan Kensing appeared in the seventh and promptly helped distribute souvenir home run balls into the left field bleachers. Victor Garate and Zack Segovia recorded the final six outs for the Nationals, walking two more and giving up three more runs.

"They had base runners on all the time," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "We probably threw 200 pitches. They were in scoring position all night. They hit the ball out of the ballpark, and it's not even a close game. Losing by eight or nine runs when you outhit somebody (10 to nine), that doesn't happen too often and that's just an indication of how bad we pitched."

Right now, the Nationals are playing with 31 men on their active roster. Not all belong in the big leagues; some might one day belong, and some might never belong. On nights like this, of course, the Nationals are learning the hard way about unready talent. Four of the six pitchers Washington used now have ERAs above 10.00. Kensing, in 20 1/3 innings with Washington this season, has now allowed 26 earned runs and seven homers. On Saturday, two of the first three batters he faced -- Cody Ross and Gaby Sanchez -- cranked balls over the left field wall. The other batter merely got a single.

While the pitching staff sabotaged the night, two other Washington call-ups -- right fielder Justin Maxwell and shortstop Ian Desmond -- both had nights to remember. And nights that could lead to more playing time down the stretch. Maxwell had two home runs, both solo shots. Desmond, making his second career start, went 4 for 4 with a walk. The 23-year-old has now reached base in seven of nine plate appearances, and has four extra base hits.

"There were a lot of nights when I was laying in bed when I was in Class AA or Class AAA [thinking], 'Man I want to get to the big leagues,' " Desmond said. "Never did I imagine I'd be doing what I'm doing now, but obviously I didn't think I was coming up here to fail."

"Desmond -- he continues to play well," Riggleman said. "Him and Maxwell are the story tonight. We'll see if they can continue to get enough at-bats between here and the end of the year to get a real good read."

For Estrada, 26, the sample size is still too small for bold conclusions. Though he is not among the team's top pitching prospects -- he never has been -- his minor league track record (9-5, 3.63 ERA with Class AAA Syracuse) reflects consistency.

"In the couple of years I've been watching Marco, I've never really seen him pitch bad," said Syracuse Manager Tim Foli, currently with the Nationals as a coach. "I've never seen his stuff bad. The only time he gets in trouble is when he nibbles a little bit."

Here, his night got off to an uncertain start. At 5:35, some 35 minutes before the scheduled start time, Estrada emerged from the dugout, adjusted his cap, and headed toward the bullpen. Minutes later, gray skies became vicious. Groundskeepers covered the infield with a tarp, Estrada (along with his teammates) took cover in the clubhouse, and for the next 2 1/2 hours Land Shark Stadium became a lake. When the rain subsided, Estrada tried again. At 8:18 he headed back to the bullpen. Time to warm up.

The warm-up session lasted almost as long as the start. With two on and one out in the first, Jorge Cantú drilled a 2-2 pitch directly over the clock affixed to the left field wall, giving the Marlins a 3-0 lead. That was his 24th pitch of the inning. By the third, Estrada was showing more signs of distress. With no outs, he walked Chris Coghlan. He walked Nick Johnson. Though Hanley Ramírez hit into a fielder's choice -- the result of a diving play by the shortstop, Desmond -- Cantú again caused the damage. The final pitch of Estrada's night was a 2-2 curve, which Cantú roped into the left-center gap for a two-run double.

Estrada said that he struggled to get a grip on his pitches all night, in part because he picked up a wet rosin bag while on the mound.

"I actually, when I threw my bullpen, felt pretty good," Estrada said. "I went out there and just grabbed some rosin bag and had slick hands, and for some reason I just couldn't get it off. I just had that in my mind the whole time. I mean, my body felt good. I just wish that wouldn't have happened. I know I would have had better control."

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