- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Joe Beimel was never supposed to find himself pitching in the playoffs for a major league team.

His entire pitching career had been defined by overcoming the odds, whether that meant getting drafted out of small Duquesne University, cracking the big leagues with his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates or battling his way back from the minors to help lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the postseason in 2006.

So when that opportunity finally came three years ago, Beimel wanted to savor every moment of it.

“There’s a lot of people who play this game and never get to play in the playoffs,” Beimel said. “I had been playing for about five years before that and never even sniffed it - never came close.”

But just when he was about to realize the thrill of his professional lifetime, Beimel succumbed to his worst demons. Two nights before his Dodgers were to open the postseason against the Mets, Beimel went to a Manhattan bar. After several hours and several drinks, he cut up his left hand trying to catch a beer glass that was falling to the floor.

Unable to pitch because of the accident, he was forced to apologize to his angry teammates and missed the entire series, his first - and for all he knew, his only - shot at October baseball.

“To have that chance and screw it up like that, it really hit home for me,” he said. “Was this my one and only chance to be in the playoffs, and I messed it up? You start to think about that stuff.”

Beimel can relive those dark moments now and rest easy knowing he got a second chance. After going a year and a half without consuming a sip of alcohol, he returned to the playoffs last fall with the Dodgers and pitched in three games of the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

On Saturday, the 31-year-old lefty was sitting at his locker inside Space Coast Stadium, ready to tackle the next challenge in his baseball career. Having just signed a $2 million contract with the Nationals, he hopes he can continue his recent run as one of the game’s most effective relievers while also helping carry this rebuilding franchise to its own postseason appearance.

The moment Beimel signed Wednesday, Washington manager Manny Acta proclaimed him the team’s setup man. The chance to make 70 to 80 appearances and bridge the gap to closer Joel Hanrahan was too enticing for Beimel to pass up.

“I saw the opportunity here,” he said.

For much of the past four months, Beimel wondered whether there would be any opportunity at all to pitch in the majors in 2009. Despite his solid track record - an 11-4 record and a 3.04 ERA in 216 combined games the past three seasons - contract offers weren’t coming in fast and furious.

So Beimel stayed at home in Los Angeles, played with his kids and worked out on his own at UCLA, finding ways to kill time before a reasonable offer was extended.

“It was a long offseason,” he said. “I think if I had known it was going to take that long to sign, I probably would have tried out for ‘American Idol’ or something. I’ve been watching that show for a couple weeks now, and I think I could have made it.”

Fortunately for the Nationals - and for fans of people who can actually sing - Beimel finds himself in Viera now, in a Washington uniform and on a pitching mound facing live hitters. After throwing batting practice Saturday, Beimel is expected to pitch in a minor league game Monday. It won’t be long before he’s appearing with the rest of the big leaguers.

The Nationals believe his presence will have a positive effect for a relief corps that entered camp with all sorts of question marks. With Beimel slated to pitch the eighth in front of Hanrahan, every other member of the bullpen can slide down into their more-suited roles.

The addition also served as a morale booster of sorts. This team doesn’t often go out and sign major league free agents three weeks before Opening Day.

“I could feel it from our players,” Acta said. “As soon as most of the guys found out about it, they were very excited. Because they know we’re doing things right, and things are getting better quicker than we thought.”

Beimel doesn’t yet know how much impact he can have, but he does know he wants his new teammates to experience the thrill of October baseball just as he finally got to last fall. It’s an experience he wouldn’t have been able to savor had he not recognized his personal failures two years before.

“I made a few changes and was fortunate enough to be able to redeem myself last year and pitch in the playoffs,” he said. “That was kind of the icing on the cake. I was finally able to put the whole thing behind me.”

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