- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

SAN DIEGO — There are ballplayers who get called up from the minor leagues and never leave. And then there are ballplayers who get called up for a few weeks and are sent down, get called back up for a few weeks and are sent down again, get called up once more and are … well, you get the idea.

Jason Bergmann knows the routine all too well. The Washington Nationals right-hander was optioned to and recalled from Class AAA four times last year, so he can speak authoritatively on the subject.

“When you get sent up, it’s just a thrill, an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “When you get sent down, it’s the worst thing in the world. It stinks. You look around the clubhouse, and everyone around you is going on to the next series in the next city, and you’re going back to Triple-A.”

Here’s how Bergmann’s 2006 went: On March 28, he was optioned to New Orleans. Four days later, he was recalled to Washington. Seven days after that, he was optioned back to New Orleans, only to be called up again 18 days later. On May 14, he was optioned to Class AAA for the third time in less than two months, only to return to the majors June 20, be sent down July 5 and come back one last time Aug. 11.

In baseball terms, Bergmann was forever the 12th pitcher on an 11-man staff.

This year, the 25-year-old finally appears able to establish some roots. He has been in the Nationals’ starting rotation since Opening Day, and though there was a point early on where it looked like his latest big league stint would be brief, he has pitched so well since that he suddenly looks like a mainstay.

When he takes the mound today at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs, Bergmann will be the proud owner of a 2.79 ERA, tops in the Washington rotation and 14th best in the National League. Throw out a forgettable 32/3-inning outing in his first start of the season and Bergmann’s ERA plummets to 1.78.

“I think these last couple games have been the most consistent I’ve been as far back as I can remember,” he said. “I like the strides I’ve made upwards.”

Few saw this coming. When camp opened this spring, Bergmann was one of a dozen guys fighting for spots in the rotation, but he wasn’t considered among the six or seven front-runners. He had been far too erratic in his previous stints in Washington, going 2-2 with a 5.76 ERA in 44 appearances (seven starts) in 2005 and 2006.

The 6-foot-4 hurler seemed to have the physical tools to pitch in the majors, but he couldn’t string together enough good outings to make the coaching staff and front office believe he was worth keeping.

Bergmann’s explanation is simple.

“I was trying too hard,” he said. “And if you try too hard, it throws off your mechanics. It’s been told to me that the more you try in baseball, the worse you’re going to do.”

As spring training ended, Bergmann again looked like the odd man out. Jason Simontacchi and Jerome Williams were in position to earn the final two spots in the rotation, so Bergmann seemed headed back to Class AAA.

But after Simontacchi suffered a groin strain the last week of camp, Bergmann was named the fifth starter. Within a week, he seemed destined for a quick departure after allowing four runs and walking six in that first start. General manager Jim Bowden had an animated talk with Bergmann behind the cage during batting practice one afternoon, informing him that he had better start throwing strikes or else.

Bergmann knew what that meant.

“If you’re not performing well, you know it,” he said. “You don’t need to be told. I mean, I knew I was on the verge of getting sent down. You try not to think about it, but when you give up six runs in two innings, it’s like, ‘Man, I did not do good today.’ ”

Under that immense pressure, Bergmann did what pitching coach Randy St. Claire had been trying to get him to do for three years: stop putting pressure on himself, trust that he was good enough to get major league hitters out and just go do his job.

The ensuing resurgence has been nothing short of remarkable. Bergmann tossed six innings of one-hit ball against the Atlanta Braves on April 12, and in his last four starts he has allowed just five earned runs on 11 hits over 251/3 innings.

“He’s finally got it,” St. Claire said. “If you watch him out there now, he doesn’t overthrow. He overthrows very little, where he loses the ball and you see it take off. He’s finally been able to make that mental change, and it’s really helped him.”

So much so that Bergmann finally may be able to unpack his bags for good. That back-and-forth shuttle to Class AAA will have to be reserved for someone else, a comforting thought to the right-hander and to his supporters with the Nationals who at last are seeing him perform the way they always believed he could.

Said manager Manny Acta: “It’s completely out of our minds that we are going to see the Jason Bergmann of last year and the beginning of the season.”

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