- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2007

When Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta went to the mound to remove starter Jason Simontacchi on Sunday at Florida, his team was perilously close to being blown out.

Enter Ray King. A runner caught stealing and a weak ground ball later, the Nationals were still in the game.

“When Ray came in, if they steal second and third [and] he gives up a base hit, that scores two more runs, and now it’s 7-2,” Simontacchi said. “Instead, [backup catcher Jesus Flores] throws the guy out at third, Ray gets the next guy and it is still 5-2. The [bullpen] has been doing that pretty efficiently for us.

“I threw 41/3 [innings], and they came in and put up zeros. You can”t be any happier with that. It gives us a chance to win or tie it or do something.”

The performance of the bullpen has been one of the bright spots for the Nationals this season, and this past weekend was a good example of that. Twice in three games the starting pitcher did not make it through the fifth inning.

Jason Bergmann couldn’t get out of the fifth inning Friday night, but Saul Rivera, King, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero combined to keep the Nationals ahead. Two days later, King, Chris Schroder, Luis Ayala and Rivera kept the Marlins off the scoreboard for 42/3 innings.

“I can’t say enough about those guys,” Acta said. “Even the guys who are not the go-to guys when we are ahead or tied have done tremendous like Schroder, and Billy Traber has had his good moments. That’s what you ask for from these guys when you’re trailing — to give you an opportunity to come back.”

Relievers the team expected to count on when the season began, such as Cordero and Rauch, have combined with pitchers like Schroder and Rivera to form an effective unit. Cordero has been outstanding since returning from bereavement leave (1.95 ERA in 272/3 innings), and Schroder has a 1.46 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 121/3 innings since joining the team last month, including two scoreless innings over the weekend.

“He has made a lot of progress, and now he has more confidence in his slider,” Acta said of Schroder. “He threw a few good ones in Florida, and he’s very sneaky. The ball gets on top of right-handed hitters very quick. Unless a team sees him a lot of times, they can have trouble with it.”

Injury update

First baseman Nick Johnson received a cortisone injection in the trochanteric bursa of his right hip yesterday morning. Johnson has been out since he broke his right leg in a collision in September. The bone has healed, but pain in his hip has persisted.

Johnson will stop rehab activities that involve the lower part of his body for the next three days before resuming his exercise regimen Thursday.

Jesus Colome, who has been on the disabled list since June 24 with an infection in his buttocks, is back with the team but has not begun any baseball activities. Colome, a valuable member of the bullpen, is 4-0 with a 2.76 ERA in 452/3 innings.

“It has healed pretty much since it was sewed up, and it was closed today so it is a little sore,” Acta said. “He’s going to be available to us every single day to watch him closer. As soon as the pain goes away, he is going to be able to start doing some throwing.”

Shawn Hill will throw off a mound again today as he tries to return from left shoulder and right elbow injuries. Acta said Micah Bowie, out with a sore left hip, has some work to do before returning to the mound. Bowie said he is running and throwing on flat ground but does not have a timetable for his return.

“He’s progressing slower than we thought,” Acta said. “He’s doing some plyometrics and stuff, moving side to side. He’s going to have to pass all of those and be close to 100 percent before he gets to a mound.”