A Sept. 23 Sports article incorrectly said that only one player in the Washington Nationals' starting lineup the previous night, Ryan Church, was with the team at the beginning of the season. Catcher Gary Bennett also was with the team from the start. (Published 9/28/2005)
Nationals 2, Giants 0
Not a single member of the Washington Nationals' starting lineup yesterday afternoon at RFK Stadium was on the field when the team threw its first pitch of the season, back those many months ago. In fact, only one, outfielder Ryan Church, was even with the team then. Church's season has been marred by injuries and inconsistency, so when he found out, on Wednesday night, that he would start yesterday's game, he said, quite genuinely, "Man, I'm stoked."
That there is anything about which to remain stoked says something about who this team is and what it has been through. Though the Nationals aren't technically eliminated from the postseason chase, Manager Frank Robinson sent out a team of reserves to face the San Francisco Giants, one so full of unfamiliar faces it's a wonder the public address announcer didn't bellow, "Ladies and gentlemen, your New Orleans Zephyrs!"
And, in the tradition that this team has forged in its one year in town, it figures the group would deliver the least predictable result, a 2-0 win that ended a four-game losing streak in front of an announced crowd of 29,807 that took in RFK's last weekday afternoon game for the season, but didn't see Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, who took the day off.
The whole affair also brought up the question: Who, exactly, is Hector Carrasco, and how should the Nationals use him next season?
But we'll get to that. First, that lineup. It was almost as if the fans who clamored for changes during an interminable offensive slump were rewarded in one two-hour, 44-minute period, because the men who delivered the key hits were a pair of disparate rookies, 20-year old prodigy Ryan Zimmerman and 32-year-old career minor leaguer Rick Short. Each had two hits on the day, and it was Zimmerman who led off the seventh inning of a scoreless game with a single, then came around to score on Short's double. Deivi Cruz came through with a run-scoring single, and that was all the runs the Nationals would need in posting their seventh shutout of the year.
"I like what I've seen from them," Robinson said. "Zimmerman continues to impress, and Short has some pop in his bat to all fields."
Rarely, though, is a 2-0 victory about the offense, and it certainly wasn't the case yesterday. It was about Carrasco, the 36-year old Dominican whose itinerant career has been revived this summer. Yesterday, the career reliever made his third start of the year, and delivered as if he had been doing it his entire life. He pitched 52/3 innings of scoreless ball, despite the fact that, a week ago, his career-long outing in the majors was 41/3 innings.
"I'm not afraid," he said, "to say, 'Give me the ball.' "
So, because of season-ending injuries to starters Ryan Drese and Tony Armas Jr., the Nationals have given him the ball. His record as a reliever this year was stellar, 4-3 with a 2.04 ERA in 59 appearances, and he was an important piece of the Nationals' bullpen, one that was the single greatest reason the team had a realistic chance at the postseason until this week. But consider the conundrum the Nationals find themselves in now, trying to figure out how to use Carrasco in the future. No, he doesn't yet have a win as a starter -- he was gone by the time the Nationals scored those runs in the seventh -- but he has allowed just two runs in 152/3 innings in that role, a 1.15 ERA, with 17 strikeouts, including a career-high eight yesterday.
"Now," Robinson said, "you have like a switch hitter offensively," a man who could both start or relieve. Carrasco's intention, however? "I want to start," he said.
That this debate even exists was completely unpredictable six months ago. When the Nationals signed Carrasco before the season, they did so basically for depth, but there was little hope he would make the team. And even though he had a reasonably good spring, what were the chances he would ever help the major league club? Pitching for the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese League last season, he posted a 5.57 ERA. What evidence was there that he could make a comeback in the majors? The Nationals stashed Carrasco at Class AAA New Orleans to start the season, and when long reliever T.J. Tucker went on the disabled list in April, the Nationals called him up.
When he arrived, pitching coach Randy St. Claire began to teach him a change-up, a pitch Carrasco had never relied upon heavily. St. Claire taught him to hold it in his fingertips, to move his arm at the same speed with which he threw his fastball. Armed with the new weapon, as well as a fastball that still reaches the low 90s, Carrasco became effective almost immediately.
"It's been a tremendous pitch for him," St. Claire said of the change-up. "It's big, because it gives him an off-speed pitch to throw against left-handed hitters in fastball counts. He gets great action on it. The arm speed is tremendous, and it keeps them off the fastball."
So the auditions for next season began in earnest yesterday. Zimmerman, whose college season began in February, has played more games than ever in one year, yet looks poised each time he comes to the plate, and is now hitting .381.
"It's hard for me to feel tired up here," he said.
Short, who doubled twice in three at-bats, waited 12 years for this chance, 11 in the minors, one in Japan. "When you're a September call-up," he said, "you try to do something to make an impact."
And with the regulars watching as a group for much of the afternoon, that's what they did -- the journeyman pitcher who's in the process of reinventing himself, the can't-miss kid dipping his toe into the water, and the "Crash" Davis of his era, all chipping in for a victory that might seem meaningless to others, but wasn't to them.