NEW YORK — For a 10-day stretch in early June, Craig Stammen was a quiet member of the Nationals’ bullpen. The man who’d made 19 starts in each of the previous two seasons for Washington was called on for two appearances out of the bullpen before being shipped back to Triple-A Syracuse.
In a lot of ways, he was the forgotten man. The names of the prospects perking the interest of Nationals fans were those of Tom Milone and Brad Peacock; of Steve Lombardozzi and the rehabbing Stephen Strasburg. Stammen wasn’t on that list.
When he arrived in the Nationals clubhouse with the full wave of September call-ups, he sat peacefully by his newest locker saying hello to old friends and making himself comfortable.
But on a team that seems to be rich with up-and-coming pitching depth, Stammen’s performance since coming back up, now 2 ⅔ innings of scoreless relief, has provided a strong reminder that he deserves to be in that conversation, too.
“Every time you go out there, you’ve got to try to make an impression on somebody,” Stammen said. “Every time you pitch, every time you step on the mound you’ve got to prove yourself.”
Never was it more clear that he’s doing just that than on Tuesday night at Citi Field when Stammen practically willed the Nationals to a 3-2 win over the New York Mets, their 69th of the season, and tying their win total from all of 2010 with 15 games remaining in the 2011 season.
“I know I’ve got some age on me but I’ve got a pretty good memory when guys do well,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He’s certainly thrown exceptionally well. He really works the ball down, almost to a fault. He’s got a live arm and they also tell me that he’s very durable. He’s definitely in the mix here.”
With Doug Slaten making a mess of a recently-tied ballgame in in the sixth, opening in the inning with a walk and a hit batter, Stammen was summoned to clean it up. He did so, retiring all three batters he faced and stranding Slaten’s two, and then he ripped a single to right field in the top half of the seventh .
When he came around three batters later on Ryan Zimmerman’s RBI-single with the go-ahead run, Stammen secured his own win. It was the first time his name had gone down as the pitcher of record in a major league game since Aug. 4, 2010 — the last major league game he started — a 5 ⅓ inning, one-run performance in a 7-2 Nationals win over Arizona.
In the meantime, he was relegated first to the Nationals bullpen in the final two months of last year, and then to Triple-A for almost all of this season where he was 10-7 with a 4.75 ERA. To hear him tell it, he didn’t mind. Instead he just put his head down and worked, the same way he always has.
“It’s still baseball,” he said. “The way I looked at it and handled it was if you’d have told me five or 10 years ago when I was in high school, or college, ‘When you’re 27 you’re going to be playing in Triple-A baseball and you’re going to be doing it for a living,’ I think I would have taken it in a heartbeat and not really complained about it. That was what I tried to do, I tried to stay focused, tried to get better every day and if I got a chance to pitch in the big leagues I was gonna make sure that I was ready for it.”
“I don’t think he’s the guy that really wants that attention,” said closer Drew Storen, who nailed down the ninth for his 36th save of the season. “He just wants to go about his business and do his job. He’s happy with that. He’s a quality guy, a quality teammate and I think that’s one of the big reasons why.”
He got a little bit of everything Tuesday night, displaying his cut fastball and impressive slider to strike out Nick Evans with two men on, and then going to his fastball to induce a groundout from Josh Thole and a line drive to shortstop by pinch hitter Mike Baxter. The game the Nationals had tied a half-inning earlier on an RBI-double by Rick Ankiel and single by Michael Morse, taking Chien-Ming Wang off the hook for the loss in a five-inning, two earned run performance, remained that way because of Stammen.
It became a win because of him, too.
“Stammen did such a good job, I said ‘I want to see more of that,’” Johnson said when discussing the decision to allow Stammen to leadoff the seventh. “They said he can hit.”
“I’ve always been a big fan of the way (Stammen) pitches,” Storen said. “Any time a guy comes out of the pen to get a knock like that, you’re going to get fired up. That was fun. He’s sliding, getting dirty, he’s playing it like the old days in Little League.”