2007: Levale Speigner (who?) beats two-time Cy Young winner

The 2007 Washington Nationals were plodding along a dozen games under .500 when the team arrived in Minnesota late on June 7 for a weekend series. The Twins were playing .500 ball, clearly a disappointment a year after they had won the division behind Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau, batting champ Joe Mauer and Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. Still, just six and half games behind first place Cleveland, Minnesota still had plenty of time to try to turn the season around.speigner-photo II

The Nationals, on the other hand, had headed into 2007 with a starting rotation of question marks and retreads. In addition, the team lost its two best hitters from 2006: Alfonso Soriano to free agency and Nick Johnson to a broken leg. Some pundits wondered if these Nats would threaten the ’62 Mets record of 120 losses.[1] Given the outlook, the results at this point could have been worse.

John Patterson, the one pitcher with a bit of a track record, had won once in seven starts and gone on the disabled list, never to return. Shawn Hill could not overcome career-ending arm trouble. Matt Chico, who hadn’t pitched above AA, was the only man to start more than 21 games that season, and his performance was shaky enough that he was sent to the minors briefly in August.[2]

Pittsburgh had beaten the Nats, 3-2, on Thursday afternoon as Washington ended its nine-game home stand with six losses. But the team had rebounded from a 9-25 start. The Twins were idle on Thursday.

The Nationals’ scheduled starters for the series were Jason Simontacchi, a one-time Cardinals prospect, on Friday, and journeyman Mike Bacsik on Sunday. Both were back in the majors for the first time since 2004, trying to resurrect their careers. (Two months later, Bacsik would serve up the home run that gave Barry Bonds the all-time record.) Simontacchi, given an 8-0 lead, held on for an 8-5 win Friday night. The Twins salvaged the final game of the series, beating Bacsik and the Nats, 6-3.

In between, a Rule 5 draft pick who made the team out of spring training – slender right-hander Levale Speigner, 26 — would be given the task of matching up with Santana on Saturday.  Santana was not quite as sharp in 2007 as he had been in winning two Cy Youngs, but he was on his way to the fourth of five consecutive seasons with 15 or more victories.

The rookie Speigner – his first name was Jimmy, but he went by his middle name — entered the game having made four starts. His earned run average in those starts was 14.44. His longest outing was four innings. That Speigner was in the Nationals’ rotation at all told the story of the team’s pitching woes.

“It’s not like we have a line of options,” Nats manager Manny Acta said. “We have a lot of guys hurt here and in Triple A. So the kid will go out there again.”[3] On June 2, Speigner had given up six runs in the first inning against San Diego and taken the loss. His lone previous win came in a one-inning relief appearance on April 18.

In an unusual coincidence – because few teams ever carry two Rule 5 draft picks – Jesus Flores would catch Speigner that night. Flores had been selected from the Mets’ system; Speigner from these same Twins’. (A Rule 5 pick has to stay on the selecting team’s major league roster all season or be offered back to his original organization.)

A crowd of 39,742 showed up for the Saturday evening’s 6:10 game at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a figure likely boosted by Santana’s scheduled start. Understandably, Acta was apprehensive about Speigner’s prospects.

“I thought it was going to get to him a little bit, pitching against his old team and with 40,000 people and against Johan Santana,” the manager said.[4]

Each pitcher struck out two batters in the first. Santana allowed a harmless single that inning and then worked around a ground-rule double by Austin Kearns in the second.

In the bottom of the second inning, Speigner, who relied mostly on a fastball and a slider, threw one of his occasional curves to Morneau. The Twins slugger crushed the 2-2 pitch over the centerfield fence. It looked then that the right-hander wouldn’t last long, but in fact the Twins would manage just two more base runners over his six innings: Nick Punto’s walk on a 3-2 pitch to lead off the third and Jason Tyner’s lined single to left, also on a 3-2 pitch, with one out in the fifth.

Third baseman Punto booted a grounder by Nook Logan leading off the top of the third. Logan stole second and Cristian Guzman lined a one-out single sharply to center. Logan stopped at third, bringing up Ryan Zimmerman.

The count went to 1-and-2. Santana threw a change-up. Zimmerman sent it deep into the leftfield stands for a 3-1 lead. “He just made that one mistake, and I put a good swing on it,” the Nats’ young third baseman said.[5]

Ray King, Jesus Colome, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero pitched the final three innings to hold the lead, with Cordero picking up his eighth save.

“We got out-pitched tonight, if that was possible,” a seemingly stunned Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.[6] Santana went seven innings, gave up two earned runs, fanned five and walked nobody.

Speigner credited pitching coach Randy St. Claire with speeding up his delivery and helping him avoid tipping his pitches. “I know he gets tired of some of the mistakes I make,” Speigner said, “but … we keep working and working and working.”[7]

The unexpected performance by Speigner meant the Nationals at that point had won two games started by Jake Peavy, beaten John Smoltz twice, Cole Hamels once – and Santana once.

“You look at some of our matchups, and a lot of people say, ‘You got no chance,’ said King, who struck out the one batter he faced in relief of Speigner. “We hear the broadcasters from other teams saying, ‘This is where they can take off, with the Washington Nationals coming in.’ I think now, people are going to stop saying that.”[8]

The 2007 Nationals won a surprising 73 games. The Twins won just six more, finishing 79-83.

Sadly for Speigner, vanquishing Santana and the Twins earned him just one more start. He yielded 10 hits and seven runs to the Blue Jays in three and a third innings on June 16. His ERA stood at 8.76. On June 20, Speigner was designated for assignment.[9] A few days later, the Nationals worked out a deal, sending a Triple A outfielder to the Twins so they could keep Speigner and send him to the minors. But after seven September relief appearances in 2008, his major league career was over.

Regardless, he will always have June 9, 2007, to remember.

Sources

I did a version for the Games Project at SABR.org, where it appears

Baseball-Reference.com box/game summary

Retrosheet.org box/play-by-play

[1] Rick Maese, “D.C. Teams Dominate in Sports Futility,” (Baltimore) Sun, April 13, 2007: 1C

[2] The Nationals set a strange record in 2007: The team had no pitcher who won 10 games and no pitcher

 who lost 10 games, which had never happened before.

[3] Marc Craig, “After Surgery, Wagner’s Out For the Season,” Washington Post, June 6, 2007: E7

[4] Barry Svrluga, “Speigner, Nats Have Surprise,” Washington Post, June 10, 2007: E1

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Svrluga, “Ayala Is Back, Speigner and Abreu Depart,” Washington Post, June 21: E7

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