- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

PHOENIX — The last time fans in the District saw the Washington Nationals first-hand, Zach Day and Tomo Ohka were members of the starting rotation, Joey Eischen was coming out of the bullpen on an almost nightly basis and Tony Armas Jr. and Claudio Vargas were 1,100 miles away pitching for the New Orleans Zephyrs.

Two weeks later, the Nationals return to RFK Stadium with a far different staff. Day and Ohka have been sent to the bullpen. Eischen is on the 60-day disabled list with a broken right arm. And Armas and Vargas now comprise two-fifths of the rotation.

Call it Washington’s Extreme Makeover: Pitching Edition.

The changes have had a positive effect. The Nationals’ team ERA upon arriving in Los Angeles on May2 was 4.48. Over the next nine games, the new-look staff posted a solid 3.40 ERA.

‘We’re in pretty good shape,’ manager Frank Robinson said. ‘I have no worries about pitching. The pitching’s been very good.’

For that, Robinson can thank Armas and Vargas, who made impressive season debuts in Arizona this week.

Armas may be the key figure in all this. The Nationals didn’t know what to expect from the 27-year-old right-hander when he took the mound at Bank One Ballpark on Tuesday night after spending six weeks on the disabled list with a pulled groin. It didn’t take long to recognize how important Armas could be to this club.

Though he ultimately took the loss, Armas pitched brilliantly for 52/3 innings, allowing one hit and one walk before faltering in the sixth. He showcased a variety of pitches, most notably a mid-90s fastball, pinpoint control and a commanding presence that left the Nationals gushing.

‘Tony has the capability of being a No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher, maybe even a No. 1,’ catcher Brian Schneider said. ‘He’s got all the ability in the world. We just need him to stay healthy. He brings another real live arm to this team. Tony’s more of a power pitcher, and it’s good to have that on your team.’

Armas, the Montreal Expos’ key acquisition in their 1997 trade of Pedro Martinez to the Boston Red Sox, spent the better part of the last two years battling a major shoulder injury. He showed no ill effects of that Tuesday and now seems primed at last to realize his massive potential.

‘I feel good,’ said Armas, who is scheduled to make his next start Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers. ‘Trust me, I’m just happy to be back. I’m ready to pitch.’

The Nationals have been counting on Armas to bolster their rotation for some time. The same can’t necessarily be said of Vargas, but if the big right-hander continues to pitch the way he did Wednesday night, he may prove just as important an addition.

On the DL since spring training with a sprained right elbow, Vargas was outstanding over six innings against the Diamondbacks. He allowed one unearned run, gave up six hits and walked none. Like Armas, he broke out an assortment of hard stuff that baffled opposing hitters.

‘I went down there and threw like I know how to,’ said Vargas, who went 5-5 with a 5.25 ERA last year, mostly out of the bullpen. ‘I’ve got confidence now that I can throw any of my pitches on any count.’

Most pleasing to Robinson and pitching coach Randy St. Claire was the way both Vargas and Armas attacked the strike zone, not nibbling around and wasting pitches. The latter approach is what caused Day and Ohka to be bumped from the rotation.

So is the rotation Robinson is bringing back to Washington better than the one he left town with?

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Armas, if he’s healthy, is an upgrade over what we had. Vargas is still a question mark. I need to wait and see what he can do. One start won’t tell you how he’s going to play out over a period of time. He’s the one guy on this I have to wait and see. Because I know what Tony can do if he’s healthy.’

Notes — Second baseman Jose Vidro, on the DL with a high and lateral left ankle sprain, will get a second opinion today from Dr. Tim Kremchek in Cincinnati. Vidro initially hoped to return from his injury in a matter of days, but the Nationals elected to place him on the DL. He’s eligible to come off May 20, but it would not be surprising if he is out longer than that, given the severity of the sprain. …

Reliever Antonio Osuna underwent arthroscopic surgery yesterday to repair a slap lesion in his right shoulder. Osuna, who made four disastrous appearances in April before going on the DL, is expected to resume throwing in six weeks.

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