- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ross Detwiler didn’t have Stephen Strasburg’s physical gifts, blazing fastball or lofty contract demands when he was selected sixth overall by the Washington Nationals in the 2007 draft.

Detwiler, though, was immediately touted as a top pitching prospect, a tag the Nationals still place on him two years later.

That the 23-year-old left-hander is still searching for his first major league victory — he was charged with Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds despite a solid outing — underscores the long and sometimes frustrating road young pitchers face before their careers take off.

Perhaps Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in Tuesday’s draft, will realize success sooner than his new teammate. Of course, it would help if the Nationals could supply their starting pitchers with some semblance of run support.

Over its last 13 games, Washington has scored a total of 41 runs and been held to two runs or less in eight of those games. The robust lineup that drew some attention earlier this season has fallen flat and is perhaps starting to show signs of frustration.

When Austin Kearns ended the game looking at a called third strike that appeared to be below the knees, the slumping outfielder, manager Manny Acta and hitting coach Rick Eckstein all had some choice words for plate umpire Andy Fletcher.

“I didn’t think it was close, questionable or anything,” said Kearns, who is now hitting .213 and hasn’t driven in a run since May 7. “I thought it was ball four. I don’t care what our record is or who we’re playing. It wasn’t a strike. But he saw it different obviously.”

Added Acta: “I thought it was a really bad call. That pitch was really low. … Just very uncalled for. But that wasn’t the reason we lost the game.”

No, the Nationals lost because their total offensive output Tuesday consisted of solo homers by Elijah Dukes and Cristian Guzman. They had a golden opportunity to pounce on right-hander Johnny Cueto early, putting four men on base in the first. But they couldn’t push a single runner home in that frame, and that set the tone for the rest of a ballgame that didn’t start until 8:52 p.m. because of rain.

That put pressure on Detwiler to be perfect. The young lefty nearly was — he retired the first five men he faced and wound up striking out six over six strong innings — but he made a couple of critical mistakes that ultimately prevented him from earning career win No. 1.

“It’s all on me that I don’t have a win,” he said.

Detwiler (0-3) struggled to close the door on the Reds with two outs, giving up all three runs in such situations. In each case, the rally featured two-out walks followed by RBI hits.

“The entire year has been the same thing. Every time I walk people, they end up scoring,” he said. “I had opportunities to get out of the innings. I just didn’t make my pitch.”

These are the lessons, though, that every young pitcher must learn. And the Nationals certainly have plenty of young hurlers on their current roster still learning the fine art of pitching at this level.

Detwiler got the start only because fellow rookie Jordan Zimmermann had to be scratched with what was described by the Nationals as a minor elbow ailment but could portend larger issues.

After throwing his regular side bullpen session Saturday afternoon, Zimmermann said his right elbow felt “a little tired” and “sore.” The 22-year-old, who is 2-3 with a 5.71 ERA in nine outings, expects to resume throwing Thursday and then start Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“What they’re saying, it’s kind of normal for a young guy like me to go through stages like this,” he said. “So they’re just going to be extra cautious and move me back to next Saturday.”

Said Acta: “Not concerned at all.”

Zimmermann’s condition, though, emphasizes the tenuous situation all young pitchers face. And with so many young pitchers on their current roster, the Nationals have to be aware of each hurler’s physical condition and not be afraid to treat each carefully.

The club already has plans to limit the rookie starters’ total innings count, and some could be shut down for precautionary reasons by the time September rolls around.

Perhaps by then, the Nationals will have another promising young pitcher ready to make his debut. At this stage of a miserable season, that’s fast becoming the last remaining glimmer of hope.

“It was a good day for our organization,” Acta said. “When you see Detwiler and you see [Shairon] Martis, when you see Zimmermann and [Craig] Stammen and those kids we have here… and you’re going to put them together with these guys we picked today. … It was a very important step for us.”

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