Tuesday, May 10, 2005

PHOENIX — There were any number of players the Washington Nationals could have credited for catapulting them to their dramatic 11-8 win over the San Francisco Giants on Saturday.

But ask anyone on the Nationals roster who was most responsible for jump-starting their late rally, and to a man they will name Carlos Baerga — a guy who made only a brief pinch-hitting appearance and contributed nothing toward the victory on the field.

Baerga, though, was the club’s most vocal supporter in the dugout, the inspirational leader and the clubhouse crack-up who drove the rest of the Nationals to step it up.

“Credit Baerga, big time,” outfielder Ryan Church said. “That is a crazy guy, probably one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known. He’s always saying, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s hit for an hour!’ He gets everyone pumped up.”

Two nights later, Baerga had the entire Nationals dugout rocking once again, this time for something he did on the field. Pressed into service at second base in the seventh inning of Washington’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Baerga extended his 36-year-old body to the absolute maximum to knock down Royce Clayton’s bases-loaded line drive. Retrieving the ball and firing to first just in time to get Clayton, Baerga ended the Diamondbacks’ rally and helped preserve the Nationals’ 4-3 win.

It was the only time Baerga had played second base in 15 games this season.

“You get kind of nervous a little bit. I don’t lie about it,” he said before last night’s game at Bank One Ballpark. “But the game was so close. Your adrenaline makes you want the ball to be hit to you or make a diving play to win the game, and that happened last night.”

The nerves were gone yesterday as Baerga prepared to make the first of what are likely to be several starts at second base this week. With starter Jose Vidro on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained ankle and regular backup Jamey Carroll forced to play shortstop with Cristian Guzman battling a strained hamstring, Nationals manager Frank Robinson has entrusted second base to Baerga for now. (Guzman is not expected to play in today’s series finale at Arizona and may need to take this weekend’s home series against the Chicago Cubs off, too.)

Robinson could have gone with recently recalled utility man Henry Mateo at second base, but yesterday the manager said “I have people here that I think deserve the opportunity to go out there and perform.” Namely, Baerga.

After a slow start to the season coming off the bench — he had only one hit in his first nine pinch-hit at-bats — Baerga has begun to turn things on. He’s 2-for-3 with a walk as a pinch-hitter on this road trip and drove in the game-winning run last Monday at Los Angeles.

And though he’s hardly a dynamo in the field, he has shown enough to warrant his continued presence out there.

“I’m looking more at what he does bring us,” Robinson said. “He brings a veteran presence out there. You feel like he’s not going to miss the routine plays from anxiety or excitement. He’s going to make those plays. He won’t have the range of a Carroll or a Vidro, and he won’t get to some balls. I understand that. But I’m not going to get too uptight about that, because if you’re not able to do those things, you can’t do them.”

Besides, even if Baerga does little to contribute between the lines, it has become obvious his importance to the Nationals stretches far beyond the field. They may not have realized it when they signed him to a minor league deal early in spring training, but they certainly realize it now.

“I just figured I can keep everyone happy and going and to believe we can win every day,” Baerga said. “That’s the attitude you have to have. Sometimes you come to the ballpark and you’re hurt. Sometimes you’re tired. They have to realize why we’re up here. It’s not the Montreal team from the last few years. It’s a different team. We have a lot of fun in here. You have to have somebody to keep you up all the time.”

Notes: — Pitcher Claudio Vargas, on the DL since spring training with a sprained right elbow, said he will be activated in time to start today’s game against the Diamondbacks, a move that would bump struggling right-hander Tomo Ohka to the bullpen. Vargas, who went 5-5 with a 5.25 ERA in 45 games (14 starts) last season, has a live arm and doesn’t nibble around the strike zone the way Ohka and fellow demoted starter Zach Day have lately. …

Though the Nationals do not expect Guzman to need to go on the DL, Robinson said yesterday if that situation arose, he would call up 19-year-old Ian Desmond from Class A Savannah to be his everyday shortstop. Desmond, who dazzled the big-league club during spring training, is hitting .243 with two homers, eight RBI and 12 errors in 28 games for the Sand Gnats.

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