WASHINGTON -- Who's pitching tomorrow?
A simple enough question, you'd think, but the mirthless expression on the face of Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson says otherwise. Every few days, when the fourth or fifth spot in Robinson's rotation comes up, reporters ask.
"I don't know," comes the response. And he's not lying.
Robinson hardly could have suspected Monday morning that the next night, in the midst of a playoff race, he'd start a kid straight from Double-A Harrisburg (where Darrell Rasner, 24, had a losing record).
But sure enough, the needle fell on Rasner last night at a time when, his manager said, "We can't have a throwaway game."
It may not be the ideal way to chase a playoff spot, but the Nationals are making a go of it, down 2 1/2 games in the wild-card race after last night's 4-2 loss to the Florida Marlins.
If there's a bright side, it's that none of the four other wild-card contenders is much better off. Most have three starters they can count on and a collection of rookies, spare parts and struggling veterans to fill in the rest of the time.
"I don't feel like we're doing anything that other clubs haven't had to do," Robinson said.
His Florida counterpart, Jack McKeon, agreed, saying: "What club in the league has got more than three solid starters?"
McKeon is blessed with an overpowering three in Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, but he nonetheless had to start Ismael Valdez, a veteran with one win and a 4.36 ERA, in last night's key game.
The teams' predicaments illustrate two immutable laws of baseball: 1. Pitchers get hurt. 2. Even if they're healthy, you often have little idea what they might do.
The Nationals are a perfect study in uncertainty. Only two of their starters were projected to be in the rotation during spring training. The expected second, fourth and fifth starters have been traded or hurt.
Ace John Patterson was clinging to a roster spot in late March. Closer Chad Cordero was considered a shaky bet. Setup man Hector Carrasco hadn't had an ERA below 4.00 since 1997.
All have been superb.
Players said they're used to such vagaries.
"It's just one of those things where you've got to be ready for whatever," said Nationals starter Esteban Loaiza. "That's baseball."
Loaiza, Patterson and Livan Hernandez are the three starters Robinson trusts. They allowed four earned runs in 23 2/3 innings as the team won three in a row over the holiday weekend.
"You need that if you're going to be competitive," said Nationals catcher Brian Schneider. "You need a solid three."
Robinson said he might consider moving to a four- or three-man rotation if the wild-card race stays close. That way, he wouldn't have to throw first-timers such as Rasner or Matt White, smacked around by the St. Louis Cardinals in his only start last month, to the lions.
"I'm hoping the big three will maybe come up to me and say, 'Hey, we can do it,'" Robinson said. "But they have not."
The manager said he has raised the possibility with Hernandez, a workhorse who has pitched at least 200 innings in six straight years. Robinson said Hernandez would be willing to work overtime. Loaiza also said he would be willing.
Rasner became the 13th pitcher to start a game for the Nationals this season. Before the contest, he stared fixedly at his locker, bobbing his head slightly to a tune on his iPod. No one said a word to him.
Asked if he remembered anything about Rasner from spring training, Robinson smiled and said, "He's right-handed."
But such a mystery can go either way, McKeon said.
"We don't know anything about the guy," he said. "He may have the game of his life, he may not last two innings. It depends on the kid."
Rasner lasted 2 2/3 , giving up three runs on four hits. And who's pitching tonight? As of game time yesterday, Robinson said he didn't know.