- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

LAKELAND, Fla. | Collin Balester knows the situation he’s in. He has seen the way Jordan Zimmermann and Shairon Martis have dazzled this spring, and he knows time is running out for him to earn a spot in the Washington Nationals‘ rotation.

That may explain why the young right-hander believes he’s trying too hard these days.

“Maybe I’m putting a little too much pressure [on myself],” he said. “Right now, it’s just not the results I’m looking for.”

It’s not what the Nationals are looking for, either. Balester’s start Friday against the Detroit Tigers - five runs and nine hits allowed in four innings - was the latest blemish on his shaky spring training record. Through five exhibition appearances, he has a 7.80 ERA, having allowed 20 hits and seven walks in 15 innings.

That leaves Balester, who is competing with Zimmermann and Martis for the final two spots in Washington’s rotation, on the outside looking in.

“They’re going to make their decision, whichever way they go,” Balester said. “I’m just going to work hard and get out of this funk.”

Balester’s outing Thursday offered glimpses both at why he remains one of the organization’s top pitching prospects and why he continues to confound observers with inconsistent performances.

At his best, the 22-year-old has a dynamite fastball and a sharp breaking ball, good enough to blow away a nine-time All-Star like Gary Sheffield, as he did in the third inning. At his worst, he makes mistakes at critical points and can’t get himself out of prolonged rallies, as he did in the fourth inning.

Balester didn’t have to let things get out of control. He got ahead in the count 0-2 to consecutive batters. But he got eaten up by a comebacker that could have been a double play, then hung a breaking ball and allowed a base hit that loaded the bases and propelled the Tigers to a four-run inning.

“That’s the whole inning for him,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “If he executes those two hitters right there, he goes maybe five innings with one run. Instead, it’s four innings and five runs. Those are the kinds of things that if you don’t do, you get taken out of ballgames.”

The Nationals saw too much of that last season after promoting Balester from Class AAA Columbus. After an impressive debut against the Florida Marlins - he carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning and earned the win - he fell into a pattern of two bad starts followed by one good one.

By the end of September, Balester had 15 big league starts under his belt, a 3-7 record and a 5.51 ERA. He remained one of the organization’s bright young hurlers, but he wasn’t assured of anything when he arrived at spring training.

Now Balester might be seeing his stock fall. Rated Washington’s No. 1 prospect in 2007 by Baseball America, he appears to have been leapfrogged by Zimmermann, Martis and John Lannan.

“Hey, this kid’s still very young - let’s not forget that,” manager Manny Acta said. “We’re going to be patient with him. That’s what he needs.”

Indeed, Balester hardly has peaked. And he was rushed through the club’s farm system, reaching Class AAA for the first time at 20. Desperate for pitching help after a wave of injuries, the Nationals promoted Balester at a rate faster than they normally would have preferred.

Because of that, club officials want to make sure Balester understands an Opening Day assignment back at Class AAA wouldn’t be a huge setback.

“I think he knows that,” Acta said. “He’s got to be aware of it. … Obviously, everybody wants to be up here, but we have to be patient with him. He’s got time to develop.”

The Nationals are watching closely how Balester handles this bit of adversity. Admittedly, he has never faced a situation like this in his pitching career; he always has enjoyed success at each level and earned his promotions.

He considers his current situation the biggest challenge he has faced in baseball.

“I compete, and I feel like I can get anybody out on any given day,” he said. “It’s just that pitchers go through tough times, and so do hitters. And I’m going through that tough time.”

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