- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Eight months ago, Washington Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire stood as the lone survivor amid a purge of manager Manny Acta’s coaching staff, hailed as a mentor for the Nationals’ young starters and a kind of magician who was able to coax respectability out of discount veterans and unrefined talent.

That wave of good will ebbed from St. Claire’s corner with one bullpen meltdown and ineffective start after another this year, and on Monday night, St. Claire finally paid for it with his job.

The Nationals fired the seventh-year assistant, with the 48-year-old exiting as penance for the team’s major league worst 5.69 ERA and its bullpen’s 3-17 record. The team announced the move Tuesday afternoon, naming Class AAA Syracuse pitching coach Steve McCatty to replace St. Claire.

“You always know as a coach, you’re evaluated on how your guys are doing,” St. Claire said. “We unfortunately weren’t performing, and it’s a lot easier to fire me than to fire 12 guys.”

St. Claire won widespread praise for his work with the Nationals’ staff last year, but the bullpen, as well as the struggles of recently departed starter Daniel Cabrera, helped seal his fate.

Acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday that he was the one who suggested the change to manager Manny Acta and decided to replace St. Claire with McCatty, who won 63 major league games in nine seasons and was the Detroit Tigers’ pitching coach in 2002 and 2003.

“We were last in the major leagues in nine major pitching categories, and I thought we needed a new voice to the young ears of the starting rotation and to get a kind of stabilizing personality like Steve to deal with the pitchers,” Rizzo said.

McCatty, who had been the Class AAA pitching coach the last four years, had worked with most of the Nationals’ young pitchers in the minor leagues - part of the reason Rizzo said he was the choice to succeed St. Claire.

He’s less reliant on video than St. Claire - “He stays positive, and he’s gonna say, ‘If you get beat, get beat with your best stuff,’ ” closer Joel Hanrahan said - and his outline of his pitching philosophy is succinct.

“You’ve got to throw strikes,” McCatty said Tuesday. “You can have the greatest stuff in the world, but unless you go out and challenge guys, make good pitches down in the zone, bad things are going to happen. I’ve had a lot of these guys in the past, and I hopefully can get them to trust themselves by putting the ball in play and not being their own worst enemy.”

St. Claire said he was working out with Craig Stammen, who started Tuesday’s game, at the ballpark Monday and was headed home when he got a call telling him to come back to the ballpark. Rizzo was the only one in the meeting to let St. Claire know he had been let go; Acta talked to him by phone later.

As diplomatic as St. Claire was about the news, some of the young pitchers he had worked with were more affected by it.

Starter John Lannan and closer Joel Hanrahan were out to dinner when St. Claire called Lannan’s cell phone - after 9 p.m. on an off day. Lannan immediately knew what that meant.

Their conversation was brief; the two wished each other well, and St. Claire said how much he had enjoyed working with the 24-year-old left-hander.

Lannan, who surged to the top of the Nationals’ rotation last year after beginning the 2007 season at Class A Potomac, was one of St. Claire’s biggest success stories with the Nationals. The left-hander doesn’t possess overpowering stuff but led the Nationals in ERA and quality starts in 2008 by doggedly adhering to whatever St. Claire told him.

“He was straight with me. He didn’t butter anything up. He didn’t put any icing on anything,” said Lannan, who was the Nationals’ Opening Day starter this year. “He told me what I did wrong. It hurt, but at the same time I knew he had high expectations for me and he was going to make me a better ballplayer. He was kind of a, I guess, father figure.”

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