- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

Not much has gone right this season for Harrisburg, the Washington Nationals’ Class AA affiliate. An anemic offense and spotty starting pitching have led to a 15-25 record, the worst in the Eastern League.

And it might have been worse except for the efforts of the bullpen. Led by a college shortstop, a reluctant former starter and a shy, strong-armed lefty, the Senators’ relief corps is talented and deep and offers promising options for the parent club in the future.

“[The Harrisburg bullpen] really started out just lights out,” Washington director of player development Adam Wogan said. “They’ve shown recently that they’re human, but they are doing a great job.”

Danny Rueckel didn’t spend many nights in his dorm room at Furman dreaming about playing professional baseball. Rueckel was a four-year starter at shortstop who hit .289 with four homers his senior year.

One day during his sophomore season, however, he was messing around in the bullpen, and his situation changed. His roommate, Tommy John III, was rehabbing an injury, and Rueckel would toe the rubber when John was resting.

“I was bringing back my glory days from high school,” Rueckel joked. “I was just throwing to the catcher, and I got a little tap on the shoulder from Tommy John [Jr., his roommate’s father and Paladins pitching coach]. He said, ‘Throw that curveball again.’ Then he said, ‘OK, throw a fastball.’ I knew where it was going, or at least it looked like I did, and it kind of snowballed from there.”

John moved to the Expos organization, and in 2002 Montreal made Rueckel a 12th-round pick. Even with his added versatility on the mound, Rueckel didn’t think he would be playing baseball for a living.

“Never. Not one bit — didn’t even cross my mind,” Rueckel said. “We were playing South Carolina one day, and I came in to pitch the ninth inning. It reminded me of high school. I came right from shortstop to the mound and just threw as hard as I could. One of the Expos scouts was there looking at a player from South Carolina, and luckily I was in the right place at the right time. And having Tommy John in the organization didn’t hurt either.”

Rueckel’s main weapon is a devastating curveball that ranks as one of the best in the Nationals organization (Baseball America rates it the best). He is not physically imposing on the mound at 6 feet and 170 pounds and does not throw all that hard, but he can buckle hitters’ knees with his curve and set up his fastball or vice versa.

He skipped a level from Class A Savannah to Class AA Harrisburg last year and is the Senators’ closer during his second tour of duty in the Eastern League. He now has 80 strikeouts against 21 walks in 100 innings at Class AA.

Jason Bergmann was selected by the Expos one round before Rueckel in 2002 as a starting pitcher from Rutgers. He struggled in that role before a promotion to Class A Brevard County last season and a move to the bullpen. Bergmann, whose most effective pitch is a low-to-mid 90s heater, wasn’t enthusiastic about the move at first.

“At first, no, but after I talked to them they said I had a better chance to make the major leagues as a reliever,” Bergmann said. “Once I thought about that, I grasped what they were trying to tell me and accepted the role. I closed a little last year and had a lot of fun doing it. For me, it was something that once I was successful at it, it was something I could fall into easier.”

Bergmann has adapted well. He fashioned a 1.14 ERA in 24 appearances with Brevard County last year and stands at 1.83 in 19 innings with the Senators. The organization hoped his fastball would be more effective in short spurts out of the pen and so far, so good.

“I think just getting the pitches in the right spot [is the reason for the improvement],” Bergmann said. “I think my fastball command has been better coming out of the pen. I’ve just been going out there and attacking hitters and putting pitches where I need to when I need to.”

The first thing that sets Jason Norderum apart from Rueckel and Bergmann is his shy nature. The next is that he’s a lefty, and that might help him advance quicker than the other two. He is a hard thrower with a somewhat deceptive delivery that can baffle hitters when he throw strikes.

Norderum did not pitch well last season, racking up 53 walks and a 6.83 ERA at Brevard County, but as the top lefty in Harrisburg’s bullpen he has posted a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings. Wogan said Norderum was “a different guy” in spring training and noted a much-improved focus.

“I spent a lot of time this offseason working on my mechanics and my delivery,” Norderum said. “I wanted to just get back to playing ball and not worrying about all the other stuff. They gave me a chance to come up here and play. I’ve struggled a little in a couple of my past outings, but we have a good bullpen here, and we pick each other up.”

Farm notes — Brendan Harris, recalled yesterday from Class AAA New Orleans, is considered one of the team’s top position prospects. Acquired last July along with Francis Beltran for Orlando Cabrera in a four-team deal, Harris was hitting .279 with six homers for the Zephyrs.

“He’s a very impressive player,” Wogan said. “He’s very good at third base, and he’s worked more at second than I think some people know. He’s got some power, and I think he’ll help [the Nationals] wherever they need him.”

Top prospect Mike Hinckley, who had a shoulder injury, will make at least one more start at Class A Potomac. He has not been particularly sharp in three starts since leaving extended spring training.

“We’re going to keep re-evaluating after every start,” Wogan said. “There’s no rush. I’m sure he’s putting pressure on himself, but it’s about him wanting to get better, not move up.”

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