The reason Collin Balester still factors prominently in the Washington Nationals’ plans for the future is because he has the kind of unrefined pitching talent that scouts pounce on and managers dream about.
The mid-90s fastball, the big-breaking curveball and Balester’s 6-foot-5 frame are such well-worn staples of the pitching pedigree, it seems impossible for talent evaluators to look at someone with the 23-year-old’s raw gifts and pass him up.
At some point, Balester will have to cash those gifts in for something resembling concrete results, lest he end up in the large collection of pitching prospects who never quite made it.
For five innings Monday, it looked like Balester was headed toward an outing that hinted he was starting to figure out how to pitch in the majors, just like the performance he turned in against Milwaukee last month. But when it all unraveled in the sixth inning of a 7-1 loss to the Brewers, it was clear Balester is still stuck firmly on this side of the gap between potential and results.
If it wasn’t one of Balester’s bugaboos (a two-run homer to Ryan Braun), it was another (a walk to Casey McGehee). He lasted four batters into the sixth, retiring none of them, and by the time the inning was over, the Nationals’ 1-0 lead had turned into a 6-1 deficit, which effectively settled the outcome.
“He threw a very good five innings, and when he went out there for the sixth, [he] just made some bad pitches,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “If I had a crystal ball, I wouldn’t have sent him out there for the sixth. But with 68 pitches and mowing them down through five, obviously he goes back out there.”
The Nationals finished their seven-game homestand with a 1-6 mark and have lost nine of 13 after an eight-game winning streak.
This one mostly boiled down to the sixth, when Balester put a shutout in front of the heart of the Brewers’ order and saw it torn to pieces. He had Frank Catalanotto at an 0-2 count, but the right fielder punched an outside curveball to left for a leadoff double that seemed to rattle Balester.
“I was trying to put it in the dirt instead of just throwing the ball,” Balester said. “That’s been the biggest problem for me this year, trying to make them swing and miss at that instead of throwing the good curveball like I have. That’s where you get in trouble.”
The homer Braun hit on the next pitch, his third of the year against the Nationals, came on a first-pitch fastball, 90 mph, belt-high and on the inner half of the plate. It was a pitch you would expect a slugger like Braun to punish, and he did, blasting it to left and giving the Brewers a 2-1 lead. Balester has given up 10 homers in seven starts, seven of those coming in his past four appearances.
But when he could have gotten the inning back on track, Balester continued to unravel. He gave up a single to Prince Fielder, walked Casey McGehee and was gone - not 10 minutes after he had taken a shutout into the sixth.
Jason Bergmann compounded the problem by allowing a walk and a hit to two batters before he left. By the time the inning was over, eight straight Brewers had reached safely and the game was out of control.
The blame for that, though, lay at least partly with a Nationals offense that was presented with a thoroughly erratic Yovani Gallardo and did nothing against the right-hander.
“He kept us off-balance,” left fielder Willie Harris said. “He was mixing in his off-speed pitches pretty well. Tip your hat to the guy. He pitched well when he needed to.”
Gallardo threw 76 pitches in the first three innings, walking three in that span. He put leadoff men on base in the second, third, fourth and fifth innings.
The only run they scored, though, came when Wil Nieves drove in Willie Harris on a fielder’s choice. Gallardo scrambled through five innings in 108 pitches, walked four - and gave up one run.
“When you’re facing a pitcher like Gallardo, pitch counts really don’t matter,” Harris said. “He’s a pitcher that knows when and how to make pitches when he needs to. We were definitely looking for that big hit. We couldn’t get it, and that’s because he pitched well.”
And since Balester couldn’t squeeze as much out of a good day as Gallardo got on a bad one, the chance to split a series and take a step forward fell by the wayside.
“I was able to throw strikes, and they didn’t put very good swings on it,” Balester said. “My curveball in the beginning was pretty good. I kind of tried to do too much with it in the later part of the game, and it got us in trouble.”