- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2008

MIAMI | The Washington Nationals have known for four years that Collin Balester has the pitching arsenal to make it to the big leagues. Tuesday night, they learned the young right-hander also might have the guts to be a successful major leaguer for years to come.

In his much-anticipated debut, Balester did little to dispute his label as the organization’s top pitching prospect. The 22-year-old allowed one hit over five innings and then rode Ronnie Belliard’s grand slam and an offensive outburst from the rest of the Nationals to a 9-6 victory over the Florida Marlins.

Welcome to the majors, kid. Make yourself right at home.

“I couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Balester said.

Sure, the Nationals would have preferred he kept his pitch count down and lasted another inning or two. But the 95 pitches the 2004 fourth-round draft pick from Huntington Beach, Calif., did throw were impressive in their own right.

Blessed with perhaps the best arm in the Washington farm system, Balester also pitches with confidence. He went right after Florida’s hitters and didn’t walk a batter until the fifth. He wasn’t afraid to throw his sharp-breaking curveball in any situation, and he wasn’t afraid to throw his mid-90s fastball on the inside corner.

Put it all together and Balester made quite an impression.

“He’s not afraid,” catcher Paul Lo Duca said. “A lot of young kids, they doubt their stuff. That’s not the issue. He’s definitely not scared, and that’s a good sign, especially when you’ve got that kind of kind of arm.”

A lineup that pounded the Marlins’ pitching staff aided Balester. Belliard provided the biggest blow with a sixth-inning grand slam. Elijah Dukes hit a solo homer in the fourth as the Nationals totaled 15 hits.

All of that proved necessary because the Washington bullpen let Florida creep its way back into this one. It took a ninth-inning escape job by Jon Rauch, who got Luis Gonzalez to fly out with two men on base, to lock up the win for Balester.

“Those last four innings seemed like they took four hours,” he said.

The young pitcher arrived at the ballpark about three hours before the scheduled first pitch and seemed almost lost as he scanned the Nationals’ clubhouse.

“When I first went out there, I was nervous,” he said. “I was sitting out there looking at everything, and it was amazing that you’ve finally made it to the big leagues.”

With all that spinning through his head, not to mention the 10 family members and friends seated among the crowd of 12,166, Balester went to work. His first inning was a bit shaky, featuring an error by shortstop Cristian Guzman and a hit batter, but he emerged unscathed.

That’s when Balester found his groove. He retired 10 straight Marlins hitters, striking out three, and he did so with a fastball-curveball combo that left Florida’s hitters baffled.

The Marlins still hadn’t recorded a hit when the fifth inning opened, but Cody Ross quashed any faint hope of a truly remarkable debut outing when he led off with a single to left. Balester showed some signs of overcompensating after that; he issued his only three walks of the game, including a four-pitch free pass to opposing pitcher Mark Hendrickson.

But he buckled down when he needed to. After allowing his lone run on a bases-loaded sacrifice popup to second, he got No. 3 hitter Jorge Cantu to foul out with the bases loaded to end the inning and end his evening.

“That’s very unusual when guys are 22 years old,” manager Manny Acta said. “The fact that he kept battling and pumping strikes to the good hitters in the lineup in that inning says a lot.”

With Balester’s pitch count at 95, Acta decided to let him exit. And when Belliard belted a 1-0 pitch from Hendrickson over the left-field fence for his second career grand slam, Balester had all the more reason to smile.

The Nationals now led 6-1, and though there were plenty more twists and turns to this game before it was over, the kid from Huntington Beach was in line all the way to earn career victory No. 1.

“Very impressive,” Acta said. “We haven’t had an arm come through our system like this since Javier Vazquez [with the Montreal Expos]. It’s exciting.”

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