- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

One by one, they went down. First John Patterson. Then Shawn Hill. Then Jerome Williams. Then Jason Bergmann.

Four-fifths of the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation went on the disabled list in a span of 12 days, and any hope the club had of remaining competitive likely was gone.

Then something strange happened. The guys who took over for the injured quartet, guys with little experience (Matt Chico), checkered baseball pasts (Micah Bowie and Mike Bacsik) and funny names (Jason Simontacchi) held the pitching staff together.

Actually, they did more than just hold it together. They made it better.

Don’t believe it? Consider: The collective ERA of the Big Four (Patterson, Hill, Bergmann and Williams) before each got hurt was 4.49. Since then, those other four starters have a collective ERA of 3.31.

And not surprisingly, the Nationals just completed their most successful stretch of the season. They went 5-2 on last week’s road trip to Cincinnati and St. Louis and return home tonight to face the Los Angeles Dodgers with 12 wins in their last 17 games.

All with 80 percent of their starting rotation on the shelf.

“I don’t think it’s surprising,” Simontacchi said. “Just seeing the guys and seeing their makeup and how they go about their business, I don’t think there was any question we were going to keep our team within striking distance.”

The improved rotation isn’t entirely responsible for Washington’s stunning turnaround. An offense that had been among baseball’s worst sprung to life in the last week, raising its batting average 12 points (from .228 to .240) in only seven days while averaging seven runs a game. And a bullpen that already had been performing well continued to leave manager Manny Acta’s club in good shape during the late innings.

“I think the combination of the offense and our bullpen just helped us have this great road trip,” Acta said.

But it all starts with a rotation that has defied the odds.

When the Nationals arrived at spring training three months ago with an overflowing locker room of pitchers, they became the laughingstock of the league. Only Patterson was assured of a job come Opening Day. The rest of the rotation would be filled with any of a dozen contenders who were brought in from all over baseball to compete.

In the end, Hill, Chico, Williams and Bergmann won the battle. Simontacchi would have made it, but he suffered a groin injury in late March and saw his season debut delayed.

It was easy to overlook the losers in the competition at that point because they didn’t figure into the immediate picture. The Nationals, though, knew all along that injuries and other maladies would disrupt the rotation at some point and reserves would have to be called in.

Turns out that spring training locker room was overflowing for a reason after all.

“I feel fortunate that we brought 37 pitchers to camp,” Acta said. “Because some of those guys are the ones who have come over here and given us a lift now when we needed it.”

So it happened that Bacsik, an 18th-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 1996 who made his major league debut in 2001 but has bounced around from organization to organization since then, now finds himself a key contributor in the Washington rotation. In two starts spanning 132/3 innings, the 29-year-old left-hander has allowed just three runs.

“If you watch me throw, I don’t have anything that stands out like a first-round draft pick,” Bacsik said. “I have to go out there and compete and get outs. But you know what? At 23 years old, I got major league hitters out. Inconsistently, but I got them out. Now I’m 29 years old. Why would I be worse now than I was then? That’s how I look at it.”

The other contributors have equally compelling stories. Bowie was once a highly thought of starter prospect with the Atlanta Braves. But he bounced around, had major elbow surgery and resurfaced last year with the Nationals as a reliever. When Acta became desperate for another starter, he turned to the 32-year-old lefty.

On Friday, Bowie allowed two runs over five innings against the Cardinals to earn his first major league win as a starter since 1999.

Simontacchi was out of organized baseball the last two years while recovering from shoulder surgery until the Nationals spotted him pitching in the Dominican Republic over the winter and signed him to a minor league contract. He has yet to surrender more than four earned runs in a start since joining the rotation earlier this month.

Just another surprising twist to a Nationals season that suddenly has turned for the better.

“I guess we’re the underdogs no matter what,” Simontacchi said. “We don’t have all the experience that other teams do, but we have the talent. It’s just a matter of going out there and putting it together.”

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