CHICAGO | Mike MacDougal has, as Washington Nationals teammate Josh Bard puts it, "a one-in-a-billion arm." Plenty of big league relievers have the ability to throw the ball 98 mph, but name another one who can also make a pitch at that extreme velocity sink several inches.
It's a gift only MacDougal seems to possess, but for much of his career it's a gift he has been unable to harness. At long last, though, this lanky right-hander has discovered the secret to controlling that devastating pitch, and the results have been remarkable.
As he showed Thursday in closing a 5-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs, MacDougal can enter a tense ballgame, seize control and emerge on top. And considering he has been doing this for more than two months, perhaps the Nationals have found themselves a long-term answer at the back end of their bullpen.
"We're in a situation where it's a great time for us to get a read on some guys, to see if Mike is part of the future here," said interim manager Jim Riggleman, whose club is 46-82. "And to this point, he's been very encouraging."
MacDougal's escape act Thursday, in which he recorded five outs and stranded the tying run on second base, was only the latest in a growing list of them. Since taking over closer duties June 17, the 32-year-old has successfully converted 14 of 15 save opportunities, posted a 2.15 ERA and held opponents to a .192 batting average.
This after getting unceremoniously dumped by the Chicago White Sox in April after piling up a 12.46 ERA.
"To myself, I always felt I was pretty good," he said. "It was just people's perception of me over in Chicago. But I feel like I've been the same guy pretty much."
That's not entirely true. MacDougal has reinvented himself as a pitcher since coming to the District. He always has had a great arm, but he always has struggled to locate his fastball and really struggled to locate his slider. So the Nationals told him to forget about the slider altogether and just keep pumping fastballs down in the zone.
It's an unconventional approach, to be sure, but it has worked. MacDougal threw 27 pitches at Wrigley Field on Thursday, all of them fastballs.
"He's got a one-in-a-billion arm," Bard said. "So throw it down and let it run where it's going to run."
When MacDougal entered Thursday's game with one out in the eighth, the Nationals already were clinging to a one-run lead and trying to hang on for dear life. They stormed out of the gates to take a 5-0 lead in the third thanks to home runs by Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn but watched as the Cubs chipped away to get back into the ballgame.
Handed that five-run lead, rookie starter J.D. Martin (3-3) had to gut his way through five innings, serving up homers to Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee.
"We had that nice lead," Martin said. "I was just trying not to do too much and keep us in the game."
The Cubs drew within a run when Ramirez singled up the middle in the seventh off reliever Tyler Clippard and had runners on the corners with two outs when Riggleman turned to lefty Sean Burnett to face Kosuke Fukudome. Burnett's 2-2 pitch bounced in the dirt and skipped away to Bard's right; Lee took off from third and the crowd of 35,174 sprang to its feet.
Somehow, Bard got to the ball and flipped to Burnett just in time to tag Lee out before he slid across with the tying run, allowing the Nationals to breathe a sigh of relief.
"When I let the ball go, I thought it was going to hit Fukudome in the back," Bard said. "I couldn't even see Burnett. I just threw it towards home plate."
That adept play preserved the slim lead and paved the way for MacDougal to lock up the victory, just as he had done 13 previous times since assuming the closer's job.
Might his performance secure his place in that role beyond this season? The Nationals have talked about scouring the free-agent market this winter for a closer after watching Chad Cordero blow out his shoulder last year and Joel Hanrahan blow too many leads this year. But perhaps the answer is right before their eyes.
"He's been able to get that third out in the ninth," Riggleman said. "And sometimes that's not just a matter of if you have good stuff. It's the nature of who you are and the makeup of the person. He's handled it well."
MacDougal insisted he hasn't thought that far ahead yet.
"Oh, this is kind of generic," he said with a laugh. "But I'm just going out there trying to get outs. I'm not really thinking about that yet. That's for them to figure out. Right now, I'm just happy to get outs."