- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — The Washington Nationals have defied expectations this season largely because of their ability to overcome a string of injuries that has left their Opening Day rotation in shambles.

It’s a testament to manager Manny Acta, pitching coach Randy St. Claire and their corps of fill-in pitchers who have been thrust into duty under difficult circumstances. Without them, the Nationals wouldn’t find themselves today on the fringes of respectability, proving all those spring training predictions of 120 losses wrong.

The challenges, though, seem to keep coming on a nightly basis, to the point that Acta and Co. have to be wondering what they did to deserve this kind of punishment. The rookie manager insisted he’s looking for no pity after last night’s 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, in which starter Jason Bergmann — who missed more than a month earlier this season with inflammation in his right elbow — left with a strained hamstring, but few would blame him if he did.

“It’s not going to help me, complaining and feeling sorry for myself,” Acta said. “Bring somebody else up if he’s not ready, and we’ll battle.”

The Nationals (42-57) will deal with that dilemma soon enough. For now, they will mull over last night’s loss in a nip-and-tuck game that was settled in the eighth, when Aaron Rowand hit a solo homer off Luis Ayala to snap a 3-3 tie.

Rowand’s blast into the left-field bleachers at Citizens Bank Park came on a 2-2 fastball over the plate, a mistake in location by Ayala (0-2). Washington’s players, though, were more upset about the previous pitch: a fastball that began outside and tailed back over the plate but was called a ball inside by plate umpire Bob Davidson.

“It was a real good pitch,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “I don’t want to sit here and rip on Bob. I’m not gonna do that. … It’s a pitch you probably could call, but I don’t want to sit here and say anything without seeing a replay.”

The game may have been lost during that sequence, but the evening’s bigger story was the injury of Bergmann, who has assumed the role of de facto staff ace while John Patterson and Shawn Hill try to recover from their own arm injuries.

Most frustrating was the manner in which the right-hander hurt himself — running the bases.

With two outs in the third, Ronnie Belliard lined a single up the middle. Much to the surprise of the crowd of 40,110, Washington third-base coach Tim Tolman waved Bergmann around, leading to a simple throw from Rowand to the plate to nail the sliding pitcher.

“It’s just the wrong place, the wrong time to send him,” Tolman said afterward, admitting his mistake.

The decision was magnified when Bergmann felt a twinge in his left leg coming around third.

“I felt it right away,” he said. “But I’m not the kind of person who’s going to take himself out of the game unless it’s really that bad.”

So Bergmann walked to the mound for the bottom of the inning, only to realize quickly he wouldn’t last much longer.

Two pitches into the first batter of the inning, Schneider already was out talking to his starter. Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins then hit Bergmann’s next pitch, a low-and-inside slider, off the facing of the second deck in right field for a solo homer.

Bergmann managed to record a groundout after that, but he walked the next batter and soon was greeted at the mound by Schneider, St. Claire and trainer Lee Kuntz. After a brief consultation, he walked gingerly off the field, the latest in a long line of Nationals pitchers to go down.

The team won’t decide for certain whether Bergmann can make his next scheduled start Sunday in New York, but it looks doubtful at this point.

“Right now, no,” Bergmann said. “I think right now, the best thing for us to do is treat it, see how it is tomorrow.”

Thus, a Washington team that already has used 11 different starting pitchers this season now must prepare to add two more inexperienced hurlers to the mix. The Nationals already planned to promote either right-hander Joel Hanrahan or left-hander John Lannan from Class AAA Columbus to start half of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Mets. Now it appears both pitchers will be called up to make their major league debuts.

And that’s assuming Billy Traber is able to bounce back from a 44-pitch relief outing of Bergmann last night to make his regularly scheduled start in one of Saturday’s games.

“I don’t really know,” Traber said, though Acta said the left-hander will start as planned.

Even so, as players filtered out of their clubhouse last night, they couldn’t help but wonder how much longer they can hold on with a starting rotation that has been patched up many times in less than four months.

“When you work with these guys as much as [backup Jesus] Flores and I do … it’s frustrating for them but for us, too,” Schneider said. “It’s not easy having to have guys come up and have different guys come into the rotation.”

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