- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

What the Washington Nationals have accomplished this season, despite having a hospital wing’s worth of players on the disabled list, is nothing short of amazing.

The Nats have had 15 players on the DL a total of 17 times in the first three months of this season, the most in the major leagues. Yet, here they are in first place in the most competitive division in the league.

Miraculous. Astonishing. Grab your thesaurus. Knock yourself out.

But now, with the All-Star break approaching, it is time to stop lighting candles and clutching rabbit foots. Over a 162-game season, even the best fairy tales get exposed.

You can’t, day after day, count on the will to win — and sometimes it seems that’s all the Nats have. You need players, enough of them to keep that will from breaking when you are outmanned every day.

The organization must do two things if it is to continue to compete: get healthy and get more players.

The Nats claimed their 28th come-from-behind win last night, but that style is too difficult for even this proud, tough crew to sustain for an entire season — particularly down the stretch.

The Nats’ Death Valley days come in August, when they play 16 games on the road — including a particularly brutal stretch of 13 straight at Houston, Colorado, Philadelphia and the New York Mets.

You can’t win on a trip like that with a lineup that includes Wil Cordero at first base and Tony Blanco in the outfield. You need those players where they belong: on the bench, healthy and available.

You need a rotation deeper than the three starters — Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson — the Nats have relied on to keep them in games. And you need replenishment for a bullpen that is so-often used.

“You think we only need one?” manager Frank Robinson joked when asked whether he could name one place the Nats needed help. “Probably another starting pitcher, a proven guy. You need a starter who can stay away from the big inning. You need a starter who can give you six or seven innings when he goes out there.”

Teams sometimes will call up a prospect from Class AA or lower for the second half of a season, a young pitcher with a strong emotional makeup and good enough arm to face opposing teams who are not familiar with him.

The Nats don’t have any obvious candidates for that role. Rich Rundles, in his second season at Class AA in Harrisburg, has put up solid numbers: He has a 5-5 record and a 3.67 ERA. At least one person in the Nats’ player development system believes Rundles is ready to pitch in the majors. He is 24 years old, 6-foot-5, 180 pounds and — best of all — a left-hander.

But, still, he is a kid, an unproven commodity. Rundles probably isn’t the best fit for a manager like Robinson, who wants players with major league experience.

“We’ve had to make quite a few moves with pitchers in our organization, and we just don’t have anybody down there that we could do that with,” Robinson said. “They are either very young or marginal type players that are not better than what you have here.”

The Nats had high hopes for Zach Day, who has been such a disappointment. Recovering from a fractured right forearm, Day pitched a three-inning simulated game Tuesday and said he felt good. He has a rehab start scheduled for Saturday at Harrisburg.

However, Day’s relationship with Robinson is strained, and he was set to be traded before he was hurt. His track record does not inspire as much confidence as does his potential. He is more likely to be trade bait than salvation.

So it is clear that, in order to please the manager, the Nats are going to have to deal for a starter. Given the depleted status of the minor league system, the Nats likely will have to offer a lot more than other teams for the top names that keep coming up, such as Jason Schmidt or Jamie Moyer.

There is one pitcher, right across the field in the opposing dugout for this series, who could be the perfect fit: Mark Redman.

Redman has been the Pirates’ best pitcher this season despite his 4-6 record. He has a 3.42 ERA and ranks among the best in the league in quality starts; in 13 of 16 starts he went at least six innings and gave up three or fewer earned runs. He has two complete games — one a 2-1 loss to San Francisco — and he also has a 1-0 loss to Atlanta. He is a 31-year-old veteran with pennant race experience (14-9 for the Marlins in 2003). He is a left-hander and has a one-year, $4.5 million contract with a player option for next season, so it is not as if the Pirates can expect much in return for a player who is essentially a two-month rental.

This time of year, there are sellers and there are buyers. Everyone, including general manager Jim Bowden, expected the Nats to be a seller. Instead, they are buyers.

Bowden deserves credit for putting together the roster that got the Nats in this position. He now has to seal the deal.

When Sept.1 rolls around and the Nationals have 19 of their final 29 games at friendly RFK Stadium, where they have compiled the best home record in baseball, they must still be leading the division or in the hunt.

That’s all they can ask for, to be there Sept. 1. After that, the heart of this team can do the rest.

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