- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Esteban Loaiza was the last pitcher to exit the bullpen yesterday. The veteran right-hander spent extra time throwing off the mound working on his cutter while the rest of the day’s scheduled pitchers moved on to the next drill and practice field.

That dedication is a good reason why everybody affiliated with the Washington Nationals believes Loaiza is a better pitcher than the one who was banished to the New York Yankees bullpen last season just six starts after he was acquired from the Chicago White Sox. With New York, he went 1-2 with an 8.50 ERA in 10 appearances.

“I think I am [better], and I think I know I will be, because I’m starting off fresh,” Loaiza said. “I have a fresh mind and fresh everything. Me going from a 21-game winner two years ago, then trying to develop the second year with the White Sox and then being traded to the Yankees was probably a little too much for me.”

Desperate to add a top-notch starter to their rotation, the Nationals signed Loaiza as a free agent to a one-year, $2.9 million deal Jan. 19. Some are calling Loaiza’s 2003 season, a year in which he went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA and finished second in American League Cy Young Award voting, an aberration.

Others will say Loaiza’s 2004 season was the real aberration. Nationals manager Frank Robinson calls Loaiza a real key to the club’s rotation. In a 10-year major league career, Loaiza has a 100-89 record and 4.70 ERA.

The 2003 season “may have been an [aberration], because he’s never done it before that and he didn’t do it after that, but he’s certainly a better pitcher than what his record indicated last year,” Robinson said. “If he had [pitched like] the year before, he wouldn’t be in this camp ” he’d be someplace else. I’m happy to have him here. He makes our pitching staff stronger, and we’ll be able to compete better with him here and I think he’ll win his share of ballgames.”

Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden pursued marquee free agents Odalis Perez and Jaret Wright in the offseason, but they proved too expensive for the Nationals ” a club without an owner and with a payroll limited to $50 million.

Loaiza, 33, is a two-time AL All-Star (2003 and 2004), and the Nationals are expecting to get at least 180 innings out of him.

“I think you’re never as good as your best year and you’re never as bad as your worst year,” Bowden said. “But what you get you just never know. Health has a lot to do with it, and a lot of factors go into it. For everyone that makes you look like a genius, there will be two others that make you look like a bum, that’s just part of the game. There is a reason why some guys get $9 million a year and some get $2.9. The more money you get, the less risk for the team.”

Loaiza said his New York experience didn’t shatter his confidence. The White Sox dealt him to the Yankees at the July 31 trading deadline for right-hander Jose Contreras and cash. Loaiza said he failed in the Big Apple because of a tired right arm after racking up 1402/3 innings in 21 starts with the White Sox and 2261/3 innings in 2003.

When Yankees manager Joe Torre shipped Loaiza to the bullpen, that allowed the Mexican hurler to rest. After a regular season in which he went 10-7 with a 5.70 ERA, he posted a 1.08 ERA in three playoff games.

The Nationals want Loaiza, whose 100 wins rank him second all-time among Mexican-born pitchers behind Fernando Valenzuela (173), to be a mentor for their younger pitchers. Robinson is most familiar with Loaiza from his work with Chicago.

“I remember watching TV and hearing about him when he was with the White Sox,” Robinson said. “I felt like he always had good stuff. I think he learned how to pitch a couple years ago. There’s a lot of pressure in New York, there’s a lot of pressure with the Yankees, and sometimes that just affects a person; they put too much pressure on themselves individually and they just can’t perform naturally. In this environment, he’s not going to see as much pressure, at least off the field and the on-the-field stuff from the fans and the media. He’ll fit in just fine. I think he’ll revert to his winning ways.”

Just having the bilingual Loaiza in the clubhouse could help team chemistry, especially with a sizable number of Spanish-speaking teammates. Loaiza, who went to high school in the San Diego area, taught English to Spanish-speaking teammates as long ago as 1991, his first season in the Pittsburgh system.

Loaiza’s best clubhouse work might lie ahead. He played with mercurial outfielder Jose Guillen in Pittsburgh and understands the fiery outfielder perhaps better than anyone else on the roster.

Guillen was suspended by Anaheim last year during the Angels’ playoff series against the Boston Red Sox for what club officials called “inappropriate conduct” when he lost his temper after getting pulled for a pinch runner.

“I taught him a couple [things], but he was a little bit hard-headed,” Loaiza said. “He gives me a lot of respect, and he’ll listen to me a lot of the time this year. I know where his soft spot is, I know where his concentration is, I know sometimes what he’s doing and what he’s not supposed to be doing. I don’t want to lose with him not giving his 100 percent. If I see that, I’ve got to tell him.”

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