- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Billy Traber may or may not have known it at the time, but the Washington Nationals desperately needed a quality start from the left-hander last night.

With a pitching staff suddenly thrown out of whack by John Patterson’s strained forearm, manager Frank Robinson couldn’t afford to go to his bullpen early against the Cincinnati Reds.

Traber, though, left him no choice.

After allowing seven of 11 batters faced to reach base, he was unceremoniously yanked by Robinson in the second inning, leaving the Nationals in survival mode during the rest of their 6-5 loss before 21,642 at RFK Stadium.

“You can’t let the game get out of hand,” the manager said, “where you have no real chance to win.”

Washington, which has dropped three in a row after winning five of six, did nearly claw all the way back to erase Traber’s disastrous outing. Trailing by four runs in the fifth, the Nationals cut the deficit to one and had numerous opportunities to tie the game or take the lead.

But a lineup that has struggled in the clutch continued the trend, hitting into three double plays, and a bullpen that was stretched to the limit couldn’t quite hang on.

“I’m really proud of the way they battled and came back,” Robinson said. “We had a lot of opportunities tonight. We just didn’t get the extra hit to put us over the top.”

They had chances at the plate, but ultimately this loss comes back to Traber, the 26-year-old lefty who pitched well Thursday in Philadelphia to earn his first major-league victory in three years. He wasn’t nearly as effective last night in his RFK debut, giving up four runs in only 1 1/3 innings.

Traber (1-1) put five straight men on during a four-run first inning, the key mistake coming on Edwin Encarnacion’s two-run double. Then he committed the pitcher’s ultimate sin: He walked opposing pitcher Dave Williams to lead off the second.

“Obviously, you can’t walk that guy,” said catcher Matt LeCroy, making a rare start in place of Brian Schneider. “Things like that are going to beat you.”

When Felipe Lopez blooped a one-out single moments after the Williams walk, Robinson decided he had seen enough. He yanked Traber right then, leaving the young hurler walking off the field to boos from the crowd.

“I wasn’t surprised. He’s the manager. He can do whatever he wants,” Traber said, adding that “we didn’t pitch very well.”

Traber’s use of the plural seemed a tad odd, considering that the rest of the Nationals’ staff did in fact pitch quite well cleaning up the mess he created. With long reliever Jon Rauch (who may have to start tomorrow in place of the injured Patterson) feeling ill, Robinson had to summon every available member of his bullpen just to make it through the rest of the night.

Gary Majewski, typically a set-up man, was forced to pitch the second and third innings yet retired all five men he faced. Joey Eischen, Felix Rodriguez and Mike Stanton combined to throw five innings, allowing only two runs to score (both on Alfonso Soriano’s misplay of Encarnacion’s fifth-inning double). Chad Cordero, the last available arm in the pen, then pitched the ninth even though the Nationals were trailing.

“Thank goodness they gave us what we needed,” Robinson said. “If anything had gone wrong, we would have been up a creek, really. That’s how badly we needed [Traber] to give us innings.”

The pressure now falls upon the slender shoulders of right-hander Ramon Ortiz, who starts today’s series finale against the Reds and will need to show better form than he did while posting a 7.31 ERA during his previous three outings.

Tomorrow’s starter, meanwhile, remains up in the air. Patterson was scheduled to pitch against the Cardinals in St. Louis, but he’s now being shut down for three to five days with a strained right forearm. Rauch seems the most likely option, though general manager Jim Bowden could elect to promote another pitcher from the farm system.

Despite it all, the Nationals very easily could have won last night’s game. They were trailing 4-2 in the fifth when Encarnacion drilled a shot directly over Soriano’s head in left field. The novice outfielder had yet to be tested with a ball like that, and it showed. He got twisted up, and by the time he recovered, he could only get a glove on the ball.

It wound up being scored a double, and it gave Cincinnati a 6-2 lead. Considering the three runs Washington scored later, Soriano’s gaffe could have changed the evening’s outcome.

“I went to the left, and the ball went to the right,” he said. “If I caught that ball, I think we’d have a very good chance to win this game tonight.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the http://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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