Wednesday, September 28, 2005

MIAMI — Asked before last night’s game to name his choice for National League Cy Young Award winner, Frank Robinson didn’t have to think long.

“My pick would be Willis,” the Washington Nationals manager said.

Asked again after his Nationals pounded Dontrelle Willis in an 11-1 rout over the Florida Marlins, Robinson stood by his original statement.

We’ll see if the rest of the baseball world feels the same way after this uncharacteristic outing, or whether Willis will be surpassed down the stretch by the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter.

The left-hander who has dominated the NL all season while making Washington’s hitters look silly certainly didn’t show up last night. He was drubbed by the Nationals for nine runs (five earned) and nine hits in four-plus innings — a rough way to end an otherwise spectacular season.

“It’ll be good to go into the winter saying we got him the last time he pitched against us,” Robinson said. “Maybe there will be a carryover.”

Truth be told, Willis (22-10) was done in by a Marlins team that has all but given up in the season’s waning days. With manager Jack McKeon ready to quit, free-agent-to-be A.J. Burnett sent home a week early for insubordination and elimination from the wild-card race now official, Florida’s players acted last night like they would rather have been anywhere but Dolphins Stadium.

They committed three errors in the game’s first three innings alone. They stranded runners when they still had a chance to make it a game. And they left most in the crowd of 11,507 questioning their decision to sit through the rain-soaked fiasco.

“I think we got a little help tonight,” Robinson said. “And when we had the opportunity, we threw in a base hit or two.”

The Marlins’ misery is the Nationals’ gain. With two straight wins over this reeling ballclub, Washington (80-78) has caught Florida in the standings. Another win in tonight’s series finale and the Nationals — who a few days ago were worried about finishing the season in last place in the NL East — could have a hold on third place.

Nothing from Willis’ previous outings against Washington would have led anyone to see this coming. He was 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in three starts this year and 8-2 with a 2.48 ERA in 10 career appearances.

Track records meant nothing last night. The Nationals poured it on Willis during a four-run second inning thanks to a couple of big hits and some shoddy Marlins defense. Third baseman Miguel Cabrera failed to charge on Jon Rauch’s dribbler down the line, resulting in an RBI single for the pitcher. First baseman Carlos Delgado then let Brad Wilkerson’s grounder go right through his legs to bring another run home. When second baseman Mike Lowell threw wide on Preston Wilson’s grounder for the third gaffe of the inning, it was clear where this game was headed.

Washington never let up on Willis, adding two more runs in the third and three in the fifth before McKeon finally yanked him.

“It seems like he’s had our number all year long,” said outfielder Marlon Byrd, who matched his career-high with four hits (including a homer and two doubles). “Tonight was just our night.”

By the end of the night, the Nationals had matched their season-high run total and reached double digits for the first time since May 7. All nine starters reached base safely. Five players drove in runs, including second baseman Jamey Carroll, who had a career-high three RBI.

All of that made life easy on the Nationals’ bullpen, which was asked to pitch the entire game so the remaining four members of the rotation can all make their final starts on full rest.

Rauch didn’t find out he would be making his first start of the year, the 11th of his career, until about three hours before the game, but he made the most of the opportunity. The 6-foot-11 right-hander, still working his arm back into shape after missing 102 games with a torn labrum, tossed three shutout innings and ran his pitch count up to a season-high 53.

“I’m still not the same old me,” he said. “It’s been a battle, and there’s still going to be recovery time this offseason getting myself in shape and ready for next year.”

Still, this was an important step for Rauch, who could be among the candidates for a rotation spot next spring. He has pitched well since coming off the disabled list Sept. 6, posting a 3.38 ERA over six appearances and giving himself a confidence boost heading into 2006.

“I think it’s important for him mentally, and it’s good for us to see where he is when the season ends,” Robinson said. “It’s a good feeling. With a winter of rest and rehabbing, he should be good to go in spring training.”

Because he failed to last the requisite five innings, though, Rauch was denied victory last night. Those honors went to reliever Mike Stanton, who followed Rauch with two scoreless innings to improve his record to 2-1.

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