- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

He’s the closest thing the Washington Nationals have to an ace right now. With Livan Hernandez gone and John Patterson on the disabled list, Ramon Ortiz finds himself in the unusual position of being manager Frank Robinson’s most accomplished and most trusted starter.

Not that Ortiz really fits the profile. The 33-year-old right-hander owns a career ERA of 4.73, three-hundredths of a point lower than the mark he carried into last night’s game at RFK Stadium. But as left fielder Alfonso Soriano put it last night following a 5-2 victory over the Florida Marlins: “He’s the best pitcher we have right now.”

Robinson won’t go quite so far.

“He’s not my best pitcher,” the manager insisted. “He’s my most effective pitcher right now.”

No matter how you phrase it, Ortiz is exactly that. With 62/3 solid innings against the Marlins, he outpitched Dontrelle Willis and improved to 9-9 for the season, giving him the most wins on the staff. His 141 innings pitched also are tops on the club now that Hernandez is wearing an Arizona Diamondbacks uniform.

Such is the state of a Washington pitching staff that has a 4.87 ERA, has used 26 arms and is threatening to set a most dubious record this season.

With 49 games to go, no National has pitched a complete game. Neither have the Chicago Cubs’ pitchers. No team in major league history has gone through an entire season without one.

There’s growing reason to believe Washington could do it over the season’s final seven weeks, certainly not with the current makeup of the rotation. The only starter to last eight innings this season was Patterson, and he’s out after undergoing forearm surgery. The only other pitcher to make it past the seventh was Hernandez.

So unless Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Pedro Astacio or anyone else Robinson sends to the mound over the final month and a half decides to pump out a superhuman effort one of these nights, the 2006 Nationals might make history after all.

“I don’t need one guy to step up,” Robinson said. “One guy can’t step up for five guys. I need a five-man rotation to go out and give me innings, keep us in the ballgame and give us a chance to win. That’s what I need.”

That formula works on nights like this when Ortiz allowed one earned run in his 62/3 innings, then got 21/3 scoreless innings of relief from Micah Bowie (who left with a mild upper back strain), Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero (who recorded his 20th save).

But Ortiz doesn’t feel pressure now to step up and fill the void left by Hernandez’s trade.

“I don’t think like that,” he said. “When they give me the ball, the day I pitch, that’s my day. Nothing matters what position [in the rotation] I have right now. I don’t think about that. I think about, every time he gives me the ball, doing my job, doing the best I can.”

If anyone thought the Nationals’ complete game void would be snapped last night, Ortiz quickly put a stop to that. He got himself into trouble early on, allowing a first-inning run on two singles and a wild pitch and then putting runners on the corners with no outs in the second.

But the right-hander somehow escaped that jam, getting a popout, a strikeout and a groundout, then settled in and went to work.

Still, with Willis (7-9) on the mound for Florida, that one first-inning run looked mighty imposing. But it didn’t hold up, and the Nationals saw to that immediately. Soriano led off with a double to right-center, took third on Ryan Zimmerman’s single and scored on Willis’ second wild pitch of the inning. Austin Kearns’ forceout brought Zimmerman home, and Washington had a 2-1 lead.

The Nationals managed to add to that, getting a sacrifice fly from Alex Escobar in the third and a run-scoring groundout from Damian Jackson in the fifth, though they certainly didn’t take full advantage of their opportunities. Washington stranded 14 runners, went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left the bases loaded twice, much to the manager’s chagrin.

“People will say, ‘You won the ballgame — what are you crying about?’” Robinson said. “But you have to understand, if you take advantage of the opportunities you had, it’s an easier game for us. The way it was, we’re fighting for our lives at the end of the ballgame. And that shouldn’t have been. That’s what those missed opportunities do.”

Still, the Nationals did enough at the right times last night to snap a three-game losing streak and reward Ortiz for a job well done.

The right-hander earned compliments for his latest effort. Upon leaving the game, he was greeted with a standing ovation from the RFK crowd of 21,390.

Ortiz raised his cap, then disappeared under the dugout overhang, the new “ace” of the Nationals’ pitching staff thrilled to accept the kind of praise previously reserved for Hernandez or Patterson.

“Oh yeah, I like that,” he said. “I appreciated the fans. I’m very happy.”

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