Nationals Battle with Patchwork Pitching

By Carla Peay
Updated: September 13, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It was nothing short of a David vs. Goliath battle when the division leading Atlanta Braves rolled into Washington for a three game series against the Nationals. The Braves are winners of 13 straight National League East titles. The Nationals are fading fast behind an inconsistent offense, an overworked bullpen, and two starting pitchers – Tony Armas and Ryan Drese – that are down for the count. But every time this team is left for dead, they pull off the improbable, showing a resilience that belies the fact that this team has lost more games to injuries than any other in the league.

Friday night’s opener saw starter Esteban Loaiza pitching on three days rest, something he and the other two remaining Nationals starters Livan Hernandez and John Patterson are expected to do as long as the team remains mathematically alive in the playoff race. The Braves took an early lead in the contest behind the bat of MVP candidate Andruw Jones, who hit an RBI double in the first, and belted a 3-run homer in the fifth. But Nationals rallied for a come from behind win on a game tying single by Brad Wilkerson, and a game wining, 2 RBI double by Jose Guillen, his 1000th career hit as the Nationals won by a score of 8-6. For a moment, the Nationals had risen from the ashes once again.

The resurrection would be short lived. On Saturday afternoon, the Braves would make quick work of the Nationals, shutting them out by a score of 4-0. The Braves scored all four runs in the fourth inning off Nationals ace Livan Hernandez, including homers by Andruw Jones and Brian McCann.

But Sunday’s contest would prove to be the most challenging of all. Without a fourth or a fifth starting pitcher, manager Frank Robinson was forced to use a ‘starter by committee’ approach, using the arms of the already burned out bullpen.

“They are on the brink of exhaustion”, Robinson said of his team of relief pitchers.

“Sometimes it’s hard to look them in the eye, I ask so much of them”, he added. He need not worry about that.

“Speaking for myself, I’ll do whatever I have to do help this team win, and I know the rest of the bullpen feels the same way”, said lefty reliever Joey Eischen.

“I don’t know what’s going to take place and who’s going to start, but we’re all prepared. Everybody in the bullpen can go an inning or more back to back, three days in a row, whatever we need. We’ll do whatever we have to do”, he added.

As expected, Sunday afternoon’s rotation was a patchwork of bullpen arms, while Atlanta countered with former Cy Young winner John Smoltz. Smoltz pitched seven strong innings, making only two mistakes in the 6th, when he gave up back to back home runs to Rick Short and Nick Johnson. The Nationals countered with eight pitchers, none going more than 2 innings. Starter Jason Bergmann gave way to Travis Hughes, followed by John Halama, Jon Rauch, Mike Stanton, Darrell Rassner, Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero. But with the Braves leading 6-2 going into the eighth, the Nationals bats came to life against the Atlanta bullpen.

Lead off walks by Christian Guzman and Marlon Byrd got things started, followed by a Brad Wilkerson single, a hit batter – Rick Short, and another single by Nick Johnson. After sacrifice fly’s by Jose Guillen and Ryan Church and a single by Ryan Zimmerman, the five run rally was complete, with the Nationals taking a one run lead heading into the ninth inning.

Closer Chad Cordero took the mound. After giving up a single, then getting two fly outs, Cordero was one out away from giving the Nationals one of the season’s most exciting and most important come from behind victories. Then the Jones boys came to the plate, Chipper and Andruw, and an announced crowd of nearly 32 thousand watched in stunned silence as back to back homers sailed out of RFK handing the Nationals a 9-7 loss.

“They battled all the way back and I come in for one inning and I blew it”, said a shaken Cordero. The jovial kid closer with the ultra calm demeanor recorded a rare blown save, and the Nationals came away losing further ground in the Wild Card race, trailing Houston, Florida and Philadelphia.

“This is a team with character. We’re a battling team”, says Eischen, whose attitude remains positive.

With an unusual road trip ahead, three games in New York followed by three in San Diego, playoff hopes are fading fast. But the come from behind spirit is still there. With eighteen games left in the season, it has to be.