- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS — Levale Speigner spent four years working his way up through the Minnesota Twins‘ farm system, hoping to one day make it to the major leagues and pitch inside the Metrodome.

He never could have imagined it would happen like this.

Essentially dumped by the Twins last winter, left exposed in the Rule 5 draft, the 26-year-old right-hander finally found himself pitching in the dome last night. For the Washington Nationals. With his job on the line following four straight poor starts in which he posted a 14.44 ERA. With a fellow Rule 5 draftee catching him. Against a lineup that boasts the reigning American League MVP, batting champion and an opposing pitcher who owns two Cy Young Awards.

Has a more lopsided matchup ever been concocted? And if so, did it play out exactly the opposite as it should have by all rights?

There’s no logical explanation for the Nationals’ 3-1 victory before a crowd of 39,742 last night, so don’t bother trying to figure it out. Just know this: Everything Washington needed to pull off this stunner happened.

Ryan Zimmerman clubbed a three-run homer off Minnesota ace Johan Santana, a Rule 5 pick in 1999 out of the Houston Astros organization, to pace the offense. Cristian Guzman had three more hits to prolong the best two weeks of his life. Four relievers combined to record the last nine outs, with Chad Cordero escaping a two-out, two-on jam in the ninth to earn his eighth save.

And most importantly, Speigner turned his disastrous rookie season around with a dazzling pitching performance: six innings of two-hit ball against the team that gave up on him six months ago.

“An outstanding pitching performance by him,” manager Manny Acta said. “I thought it was going to get to him a little bit, pitching against his old team and 40,000 people [in the stands] and against Johan Santana. But he saved the best for today.”

Speigner couldn’t have dreamed up a better script for his long-awaited Metrodome debut. Certainly, he had been thinking about it since the day the Twins drafted him in 2003. He thought about it as he worked his way up the system, from Elizabethton to Quad City to Fort Myers to New Britain to Rochester, figuring he would get the call someday.

But as he walked to the mound in the first inning last night, Speigner tried to block all of that out.

“This is my first time here. I was just trying not to focus on that,” he said. “They have guys that you have to focus on their lineup. … That was really the big focus, not who it was.”

Perhaps it helped that Speigner had catcher Jesus Flores, a fellow Rule 5 draftee, at his side. The two unlikely rookie batterymates joined forces, fed off each other and put together a game neither is likely to forget for some time.

“This was the first time that I called him this year as a starter, and I feel so proud that we were able to do a very good job together,” Flores said. “It’s a very special game.”

Speigner (2-2) came into the game on thin ice, knowing he will be relinquishing his rotation spot as soon as one of Washington’s four injured starters returns.

“His attitude’s been absolutely positive,” said pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who has spent hours working with Speigner to fix some mechanical flaws. “He’s never uttered to me a word of doubt or any of that kind of stuff. He’s been great in trying to work out things, and hopefully it’s paying off.”

Speigner’s only mistake last night came in the second, when he hung a 2-2 curveball to Justin Morneau, and the reigning AL MVP hit a solo homer to center field. Otherwise, the right-hander was in complete control, going right after Minnesota’s hitters and staying ahead in the count.

“I kept working,” he said. “And thank the good Lord above, I finally put some things together.”

Speigner was helped by the fact that his teammates staked him to an early lead against one of the game’s nastiest pitchers. Washington’s hitters went right after Santana, failing to score in the first two innings but hitting several hard shots just foul down the left-field line.

They finally struck in the third, though. Nook Logan reached on an error, stole second and wound up on third on the second of Guzman’s three singles. Zimmerman stepped to the plate and fell behind 1-2 but pounced on a high changeup and launched it deep into the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer.

“Luckily we got a couple guys on base, he made a mistake and we took advantage of it,” Zimmerman said.

With that, the Nationals pulled off their latest — and probably most stunning — unlikely win, to go along with victories over Jake Peavy, Cole Hamels and John Smoltz (twice).



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