- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

Jon Rauch has been any number of things during his six-year big league career: starter, long reliever, setup man.

What he’s doing now, filling in admirably as the Washington Nationals’ closer while Chad Cordero recovers from a shoulder injury, may be his most impressive accomplishment to date.

Consider that Rauch had never closed in his life, aside from a couple of games in rookie ball in 1999 and a few spot appearances when Cordero wasn’t available the last two seasons. Then consider how he has performed since taking over on a more permanent basis last month: 10 saves in 12 tries, a 2.66 ERA, no runs allowed in save situations.

Not bad for a guy who spent years trying to figure out how best to survive in the big leagues.

It’s easy to forget now because he has become one of the most durable relievers in baseball, but Rauch was an enigma only three years ago. A starter through most of his minor league career in the Chicago White Sox organization and later with the Montreal Expos, he only became a reliever after battling through injuries, most notably a torn shoulder.

He made the Nationals’ roster in 2006 as the last man in Frank Robinson’s bullpen and was used primarily in mop-up situations through the season’s first month. It wasn’t until injuries to Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski ravaged the Washington bullpen that Rauch finally got his chance to pitch in meaningful situations.

He has been a key contributor since. After making 34 total appearances his first three big league seasons, Rauch pitched in 85 games in 2006 (totaling 911/3 innings and posting a 3.35 ERA). He followed that up with a league-leading 88 appearances and a 3.61 ERA last season, earning a two-year, $3.2 million contract to continue serving as Cordero’s top setup man.

For the first time in his pro career, Rauch was truly comfortable. A creature of habit, he found a role he could thrive in, and he had no reason to think that would change.

Until Cordero came down with a bum shoulder on Opening Night, lost all the zip on his fastball and then tore a muscle and learned he could be out until the All-Star break.

Enter Rauch, who was thrust into the closer’s role and has proved to be quite adept at holding down ninth-inning leads despite doing it in a bit of unconventional fashion.

Rauch doesn’t possess a closer’s typical repertoire, which is to say he doesn’t rely on one dominant pitch like Jonathan Papelbon’s fastball or Mariano Rivera’s cutter or Trevor Hoffman’s change-up. Instead, he uses a starter-like assortment of four pitches — fastball, slider, curveball and change-up — and throws all of those pitches equally well.

Thus, opposing hitters don’t know what to look for when they step to the plate, a nice advantage for the pitcher.

The question now, though, is where Rauch goes from here. Does he simply slide back into the setup role whenever Cordero returns? Is that it for his closing career, or might he have proved to the Nationals (and to others) that he can be a legitimate closer in the big leagues?

Some within the Washington organization have wondered before whether Rauch might make a better closer long-term than Cordero, who doesn’t have as good “stuff” and even when healthy always seemed to be teetering on the brink of disaster.

The man who makes the decision in the District, though, sees Rauch returning to his former role.

“I think he’ll be a top-notch setup guy when he’s done,” manager Manny Acta said. “But I have enough confidence that Johnny can do whatever he wants to do out of the pen. I think he’s good enough to do both.”

Setup man or closer, it’s a dilemma few could have seen coming only two years ago.

Credit Rauch for making it a worthwhile debate today.

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