- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The 1948 National League champion Boston Braves had a famous saying for their pitching rotation, which they believed survived on the arms of just two pitchers, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain:

“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”

The Washington Nationals are not quite as bad off. They can live with three rain-free days, when Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza pitch. Otherwise, their starting rotation continues with TBD — to be determined.

It might as well be SOS.

For the Nationals, it’s Livan, John and Esteban — then pray for the ghost of Warren Spahn to possess one of the TBDs they will be throwing out there when the big three aren’t pitching.

Tonight’s TBD will be Darrell Rasner, a 24-year-old right-hander who went 6-7 with a 3.59 ERA at Class AA Harrisburg. He will make his major league debut against the Florida Marlins, facing Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado and Juan Encarnacion.

What do they expect from Rasner?

“I have no idea,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Hopefully, we’ll get at least five innings where we are in the ball game. I don’t want to be out of the ball game after five innings. But we hope he can give us a good, solid five innings.”

They got eight stellar innings from Hernandez yesterday in a 5-2 win over the Marlins — now just a half-game ahead of the Nationals in the wild-card race — at RFK Stadium before a Labor Day crowd of 32,150 that gave the pitcher a standing ovation as he left the game in the ninth after giving up a two-run homer to Cabrera.

The day before, they got eight spectacular innings from Loaiza (10-10, 3.62 ERA) in a 6-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, the team the Nationals are chasing for the wild card.

And on Saturday, they got 72/3 superior innings from Patterson, who left the game with a 4-1 lead. The bullpen couldn’t hold it, and the Phillies came to tie it in the ninth, but the Nationals responded with their own comeback on an RBI single by Preston Wilson in the 12th inning to win 5-4.

Stellar. Spectacular. Superior. The best way to describe the rest of the rotation, now reduced because of injuries to anyone who can last four or five innings without getting shelled, is shaky.

All the big three have to do is keep being stellar, spectacular and superior every time they take the mound, and the Nationals may be in position actually to win this wild card.

Certainly the big three and their teammates feel that each time Hernandez, Patterson and Loaiza take the mound, they have to make the most of those starts because they are too precious to waste. Any wins that come in between are gravy.

“I think they understand the importance of each of their starts now, and each one of them is going out there and raising their game a level or two,” Robinson said. “If those three pitch that way for the rest of their starts, we’ll have a very good chance of winning this wild-card race.

Hernandez (15-6, 3.80 ERA) understood the importance of his start.

“Every game we win now is important,” he said.

It would be hard for Patterson to pitch much better than he has. The 6-foot-5 right-hander is 8-4 with a 2.44 ERA in 26 starts. Only Roger Clemens and Chris Carpenter have a better ERA in the National League.

“I just think we need to keep doing what we have been doing,” Patterson said. “We need to do our job and let our teammates do theirs.”

The irony is, though, that because of the success of the big three — and the uncertainty of whoever makes the other starts — there actually may be more offensive motivation when the TBDs take the mound.

“They’re going to have to score some runs for those guys,” Loaiza said.

That may be the only way to win those games. But this offense also has to score runs for the big three because those starts are Washington’s best chances for a victories. If they waste too many of them, this team will be R.I.P.

Meanwhile, on the music front, the clubhouse stayed quiet after yesterday’s win as Robinson’s no music edict — enacted after the team’s 8-7 loss to Atlanta on Thursday — continued. He was not inspired by the presence of tenor Placido Domingo singing the national anthem and “God Bless America” at yesterday’s game.

“It will stay silent until the end of the season,” Robinson declared.

On the marker board leaving the Nationals clubhouse yesterday, someone wrote, “Whoever took the IPod charger out of the video room, please return it.”

They might want to check the manager’s office.

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