- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

PITTSBURGH — If the Washington Nationals are going to maintain their place atop the National League East and make a successful run at a division title, it’s going to come by virtue of their pitching staff.

The Nationals know this. Manager Frank Robinson knows this. And general manager Jim Bowden knows this, which is why Bowden remarked before last night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates that his club’s top priority approaching the trade deadline is “pitching, pitching, pitching.”

Bowden knows the Nationals have ascended to such lofty heights for many reasons but none more important than the collective work of their starting rotation. Entering last night, that unit had posted a 3.11 ERA over its last 17 games. Is it any wonder Washington won 14 of those?

Is it also any wonder the Nationals’ 11-4 loss to the Pirates last night was a direct result of a poor start from Ryan Drese, who was unceremoniously yanked by Robinson in the fourth after surrendering five runs and falling behind the opposing pitcher in the pitch count?

“That’s something we didn’t want, to have to go to the bullpen that deep tonight,” said Robinson, who wound up needing five pitchers over eight innings. “But it didn’t look like [Drese] was going to be able to stop the tide, so we had to see if somebody else could.”

Upon claiming Drese off waivers from Texas 11 days ago, Washington (41-30) named the right-hander its No.5 starter, filling the hole created by Tomo Ohka’s trade to Milwaukee.

Drese (1-1) may yet prove an adequate replacement for Ohka, who had a 3.33 ERA at the time of the deal. He pitched brilliantly in his debut last week in Anaheim, tossing eight shutout innings.

But he was nowhere close to that form last night, laboring through a 56-pitch outing and wasting some early offensive support against Pirates ace Oliver Perez.

That’s not going to cut it for long with the Nationals, especially if rotation stalwarts Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson continue to be plagued by back problems. Nagging injuries to both of those right-handers could leave Robinson with no fresh starter for today’s series finale at PNC Park. Patterson said last night he believes he can make his scheduled start, but if neither he nor Loaiza can go, Robinson is likely to call upon Sun-Woo Kim three days after he threw 87 pitches in Texas.

“I’m just going to have to wait, see if one of them can go,” the manager said.

Last night, the Nationals tried to give their starting pitcher a comfortable cushion, taking it to Perez (6-5) early on Brad Wilkerson’s leadoff homer and Jose Guillen’s two-run double in the third.

The way things were going, it looked like Washington would have its way with Perez all night, but the left-hander settled down after the third and kept the Nationals off the scoreboard until he departed in the sixth.

That posed a problem for Robinson because he wasn’t getting a quality outing from his starter.

Six days after his impressive debut against the Angels, Drese struggled mightily. Given a 1-0 lead before he even took the mound, he immediately gave two runs back on four singles and a walk. A pair of doubles and a pair of groundouts in the third led to two more runs, so by the time Drese surrendered a leadoff double to Jack Wilson to open the fourth, Robinson’s temperature was already running hot.

The final straw came moments later, when Drese fell behind Perez — who was trying to sacrifice — with a 2-1 count. This, after he already had walked Perez on five pitches his previous time up. So continuing a trend he started earlier this year with Ohka and Zach Day, Robinson walked to the mound in the middle of an at-bat and pulled his pitcher right then and there.

“I was [surprised], but it was his decision. It’s part of the game,” Drese said. “We were trying to throw high fastballs [to Perez], get him to pop it up. And that’s what I did. The 2-1 count, I was going to come back down, but then I got taken out.”

An obviously frustrated Drese trudged back to the dugout without saying a word to his manager, but it was hard to dispute Robinson’s logic. Drese offered few signs he was going to turn things around, and Robinson already has made it clear this year he’s going to do whatever he feels is necessary to win every single game.

“[Drese] hasn’t been here, but I’ve seen it on many occasions,” Wilkerson said. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, and it won’t be the last.”

Though the move worked at first — relievers Hector Carrasco and Travis Hughes came through with a combined three hitless innings — the back end of the Nationals’ bullpen didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Despite cutting the lead to 5-4 on Vinny Castilla’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly, Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski gave the run (and five more) right back over the next two innings and turned the game into a rout.

“We kept answering back, and then they kept answering back,” Wilkerson said. “It’s just tough. You can only do it so many times.”

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