- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

The Washington Nationals’ bullpen has been so good all season that even the slightest hiccup comes as a surprise.

It’s happening with a little more frequency these days, though, and that could become a cause for concern if the trend continues.

Yesterday’s 8-2 loss to the New York Mets saw Nationals relievers surrender six late runs (four off Jon Rauch in the eighth, two more off Chris Schroder in the ninth). Rauch, the club’s top setup man, has given up the go-ahead run in three of his last five outings, twice leading to losses.

“We’ve done so well for so long, you’re going to have bad games,” Rauch said. “It’s part of the game. And obviously with the way we’ve been pitching, when you have one or two bad ones, it sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Rauch leads the majors with 68 relief appearances this season, a result of his role with the club, the inability of Washington’s starters to pitch deep into games and all the close ballgames this team has played. This, though, is nothing new for the 28-year-old right-hander, who pitched in 85 games last season and has never complained about his hefty workload.

“You know, if I wanted a day off and I felt tired, I’d ask for it,” he said. “Plain and simple. Next question.”

The Nationals’ bullpen did get a lift yesterday when right-hander Jesus Colome rejoined the club after nearly two months on the disabled list with an infection on his right buttock that required surgery. Colome, who went 4-0 with a 2.76 ERA in 40 games before getting hurt, ran into travel problems trying to get to Washington and didn’t arrive at RFK Stadium until the bottom of the eighth inning.

“I was supposed to come in at like 11-something, but the flight was delayed two times,” he said. “That’s why I couldn’t get here.”

Kearns front and center

Austin Kearns made his first start of the season in center field as manager Manny Acta tried a new-look outfield.

Newly acquired slugger Wily Mo Pena, hardly a defensive specialist, told Acta he’s more comfortable in right field than left. Pena will work with outfield coach Jerry Morales to become better acquainted with left field, but he may continue to play right field in the meantime.

As a result, Kearns could see more time in center field. He started four games there last season, has made five appearances there this year and appears to be able to handle the position.

“I’m just going to try to keep everybody in probably their best position out there to make them comfortable,” Acta said. “Today, instead of having two or three guys out of position, I’m just going to have one guy out of his normal position. [Kearns is] probably the best suited guy to be there.”

Kearns, often lauded for his ability to get quick jumps on fly balls, said there isn’t much to learning the new position.

“You’ve just got to cover a little more ground,” he said. “That’s the only thing, I think.”