VIERA, Fla. -- Desperate for some quality pitching only one week into their exhibition schedule, the Washington Nationals got three top performances yesterday to at least temporarily ease their fears.
Jason Simontacchi and Jason Bergmann each pitched well in the Nationals' 12-5 victory over the Houston Astros, and ace John Patterson dominated during a four-inning start at a morning "B" game against minor leaguers.
Simontacchi allowed three runs on four hits in four innings, but the final line was deceptive. He gave up a two-run homer to Jason Lane that would have been a routine fly ball if not for a stiff wind blowing out to right.
More importantly Simontacchi threw 40 of his 51 pitches for strikes, didn't walk a batter and struck out four. That makes two straight solid starts for the 33-year-old right-hander, who has perhaps been the most consistent rotation contender in camp to date.
"Consistently good, hopefully," he said. "I want to do that. If I'm a starting pitcher, you've got to establish the strike zone, throw strikes. You can't be a pitcher up here that throws balls."
Not to be outdone, Bergmann came on in relief and offered up three scoreless innings, again not walking a batter. The 25-year-old right-hander, who has bounced between Washington and Class AAA the last two seasons, has yet to give up a run or walk a batter in five spring innings and has thrust himself into the middle of the rotation battle.
"He's helped himself with the way he has pitched," manager Manny Acta said.
Only a handful of people saw Patterson retire all 12 batters he faced in the morning minor league game, but it was an exercise in efficiency. The Nationals' projected Opening Day starter threw 28 of his 39 pitches for strikes, struck out five and felt more comfortable on the mound than he did during his Grapefruit League debut five days before.
Womack, 12 others cut
The Nationals made their first round of cuts before the game, trimming their roster from 72 to 59 by re-assigning mostly young players to their minor league camp.
The one veteran included in the group was 37-year-old infielder Tony Womack, who was released after going 0-for-7 this spring. Womack didn't have much chance of making the club, and Acta said making the move now will give him time to catch on with someone else.
Yesterday's other camp casualties were outfielder Frank Diaz (optioned to Class AAA), left-hander Mike Hinckley (optioned to Class AA) and outfielders Tony Blanco, Wayne Lydon and George Lombard, infielders Melvin Dorta and Jorge Toca, right-handers Felix Diaz, Anastacio Martinez and Eduardo Valdez and left-handers Luis Martinez and Bill White (all re-assigned to the minor league camp).
Church honors brother
The Nationals recognized members of the armed forces yesterday, with the entire team wearing blue camouflage hats during the game. No player was more touched by the tribute than outfielder Ryan Church, whose younger brother will be shipping out to Iraq on Sunday.
Matthew Church, a member of the U.S. Army Rangers, is being deployed to Tikrit for an eight-month tour, and his older brother is trying not to worry too much about his safety.
"A day doesn't go by when you don't think about it," Ryan Church said. "But hey, this is what he's been trained to do, and this is what he wanted to do. All you can do is hope and pray that everything goes fine and he'll be back here in eight months alive."
Matthew Church, 24, recently sent his brother a special forces commemorative coin and asked him to take it to Walter Reed Army Hospital and show it off to the veterans.
"I'm very proud of him," Ryan Church said. "It makes the stuff around here seem like a cakewalk compared to what he and all the other guys and women over there are doing. It puts a lot of it into perspective. A lot of it."
General manager Jim Bowden and Brodie Van Wagenen, the agent for Ryan Zimmerman, met yesterday and appear closer to agreeing on a one-year contract. Zimmerman is the only player on the 40-man roster not yet signed, and major league rules require that a deal be worked out by Sunday. Because the third baseman has only one year of service time, the club is allowed to renew his contract on their terms. ...
The Nationals named former minor league manager Bobby Williams as director of player development and Mark Scialabba as assistant director of player development.
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