- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

LOS ANGELES - They arrived in Southern California for the start of a nine-game West Coast trip exhausted from an all-night flight and discouraged from the loss of reliever and clubhouse motivator Joey Eischen to a broken right arm.

And when left fielder Terrmel Sledge hobbled off the field at Dodger Stadium in the sixth inning last night with a pulled hamstring, the Washington Nationals had every reason in the world to fall into a deep state of depression.

Which made the Nationals’ eventual 6-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers all the more impressive.

Washington didn’t have much business winning this game. Not with a depleted five-man bullpen, and not with its starting left fielder on his way to the disabled list. Yet the Nationals (14-12) did somehow manage to come away with a win, in the process kicking off this imposing road trip in inspiring fashion.

For that, they can thank pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who allowed one run on three hits in six standout innings. And they can thank pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga, who drove home the winning run with a one-out single to right off Dodgers starter Scott Erickson in the seventh.

Baerga, 1-for-9 as a pinch-hitter coming in, came through with his biggest hit since joining the Nationals. His line drive through the right-side hole capped a two-run seventh, in which Washington finally got to Erickson after six mostly futile innings at the plate.

The Nationals added a couple of insurance runs in the eighth, making life a little easier for their maxed-out bullpen. Gary Majewski, Hector Carrasco and Chad Cordero each pitched in a scoreless inning of relief, with Cordero earning his sixth save.

The impressive win couldn’t entirely wash out the disappointment of Sledge’s injury. Playing in front of his own personal rooting section, the Southern California native came up lame trying to track down Hee-Seop Choi’s sixth-inning double. He gingerly walked off the field with assistance from assistant trainer Scott Lawrenson and was replaced by Ryan Church.

A few minutes later, word came down that Sledge suffered a Grade 2 right hamstring pull. He’s expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list today, yet another blow to a Nationals roster that is suddenly beset with injuries.

The area hit hardest, of course, is the bullpen, which was a man down last night. Fortunately for manager Frank Robinson, Loaiza came through with a big-time performance to help keep his relief corps fresh.

Though he wound up taking a hard-luck 3-0 loss to the Phillies in his last start, Loaiza remarked at the time that he finally felt like the 2003 version of himself that won 21 games and finished second in voting for the American League Cy Young Award.

There was no debating that assessment last night. Loaiza was brilliant from the start, recording three called strikeouts in the first inning alone, then adding seven more after that for good measure.

With his childhood idol and fellow Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela watching from a Spanish-language broadcast booth, Loaiza became a strikeout master of his own. Combined with his career-high 11 strikeouts from his last start, the veteran right-hander has now whiffed 18 batters in his last 14 innings.

That’s yet another similarity to the 2003 Loaiza, when he led the AL with 207 strikeouts to best his previous career high by 70.

Unfortunately for Loaiza, last night’s start was all too similar to his previous one for another reason - lack of run support.

Five days after watching his teammates get shut out by Philadelphia’s Brett Myers, Loaiza could only watch helplessly as they flailed away at Erickson. The former Baltimore Orioles ace, seemingly a lifetime ago, entered with a 7.20 ERA and questions about his future in the Los Angeles rotation.

The Nationals had to have a sinking feeling early on that they were in for a long night. Erickson retired the first five batters he faced on groundballs, as sure a sign as any that his sinker was working.

Washington threatened in the second, loading the bases with two outs, but Erickson calmly struck out Loaiza to end the inning. In the fourth, he put runners on first and second with one out but coaxed a 1-6-3 double play out of Brian Schneider.

Finally, in the seventh, Erickson succumbed. Church led off with a single, Vinny Castilla followed with a walk and Schneider dropped a perfect bunt into no-man’s land between the mound and third. Cristian Guzman’s force out brought Church home with the tying run, then Baerga brought home the leading run with his base hit to right.

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