- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

MILWAUKEE | The pall cast over the Washington Nationals’ season by the struggles of their pitching staff, both early and late in games, is too large to erase.

But a near-complete overhaul of the staff and some commendable work from Washington’s young starters has gradually nicked away at the mountain of embarrassing statistics the staff compiled early in the season. And Sunday, small as it might be, the Nationals’ pitchers crossed something of a milestone.

With a 3-2, 10-inning victory against the San Diego Padres, the Nationals lowered their team ERA to 4.98. It was a minor achievement for a staff in flux, but it is a small sign of improvement among the Nationals’ pitchers.

“It was well up there,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “[There were] a lot of things involved. … I would never dismiss anything that [former pitching coach] Randy St. Claire did. I think a lot of the things he was preaching are coming to fruition with [pitching coach Steve McCatty].”

It hasn’t been easy. The Nationals have just two pitchers on the current roster who were with the team on Opening Day: starter John Lannan and reliever Joe Beimel. And they fired St. Claire, their pitching coach for the past seven seasons, on June 2 with the staff’s ERA at a major league-worst 5.69.

But the unit has shown marked improvement in recent weeks.

The bullpen has a 2.17 ERA in 11 games since the All-Star break, compared to 5.71 before it. Lannan, who allowed one run in eight innings Sunday, is 5-2 with a 2.44 ERA since the start of June.

Among the Nationals’ starters, only Lannan and Craig Stammen have been consistently solid lately; the other three pitchers (Garrett Mock, J.D. Martin and Collin Balester) were called up because of injuries and Ross Detwiler’s demotion. But even with the continued turmoil, the Nationals can point to some small growth.

“We’re referred to as a young club. We’re not that young; we’re just a young pitching staff,” Riggleman said. “It’s nice to see that progress.”

Listach returns

He hasn’t played in Milwaukee in 12 years, but Nationals third-base coach Pat Listach generated plenty of interest when he returned Monday.

Listach was the AL rookie of the year in 1992, hitting .290 with 54 stolen bases for a Brewers team that went 92-70 and finished four games behind the eventual world champion Blue Jays in the AL East. But Listach never enjoyed that kind of success again.

Injuries hounded him for the next five seasons, and he was out of the game after the 1997 season. It was at that point that he started coaching, ascending through the Cubs’ minor league system to manage Chicago’s Class AAA affiliate before joining the Nationals’ staff this season.

“I like the idea that he played, but then he went down to the minor leagues and worked,” Riggleman said. “He learned how to teach, how much to teach, when to back off, when to push players. He’s a knowledgeable guy.”

Listach, who played at County Stadium, had only been back to Miller Park once, when the Brewers clinched the wild card on the season’s final day. But several of the Brewers’ coaches were in the organization with Listach - he said he had already gotten three invitations to lunch since arriving in town.

If he ever got a chance to return to Milwaukee as a coach or manager, Listach said he would jump at the opportunity.

“They gave me a chance to play in the big leagues,” he said. “A lot of the same people are still around. It was a mutual friendship from both sides.”

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