Questions remain about fourth starter

Questions remain about fourth starter

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- To the critics who wonder why manager Phil Garner is still giving Wandy Rodriguez that "leg up" for the No. 4 starter job, even though the left-hander has had less than a stellar spring, the skipper poses this question: Who deserves it more?

"Compare the numbers," Garner said. "And that's why I say Wandy should have a leg up. That doesn't guarantee him the fourth starter spot. It just says he should have a leg up."

This conversation took place prior to Thursday's game. Garner had no idea at the time that Chris Sampson would not make it out of the third inning or that Brian Moehler, another rotation hopeful, would get hit around during his three-plus innings of relief.

Garner probably would have preferred that his pitchers not support his argument with such a rough showing. Thursday's results, however, perhaps justified the skipper's belief that Rodriguez is the club's best option as a No. 4, and not just because he's left-handed.

Sampson yielded 10 runs, six of which were earned, on 12 hits over 2 1/3 innings. Moehler lasted 3 2/3 innings, allowing six runs, two of which were earned. Needless to say, the Astros didn't win, falling to the Nationals, 16-2.

Judging by the number of unearned runs, it's clear that the defense didn't have a stellar day, either. But the focus in this game was on the pitching, and Sampson and Moehler, both having previously made cases for themselves, did little to boost their standing.

All involved -- even catcher Brad Ausmus -- chalked it up to just one of those days. One of those very bad days.

"Everybody that's played the game has experienced a bad game before," said Sampson, who had allowed three runs over five spring outings prior to this game. "I'm thankful it happened in Spring Training rather than the regular season."

Sampson said that he felt good after warming up in the bullpen prior to the game, but as the first inning progressed, "I kind of lost my slider, and lost the sink on my fastball. Ausmus told me I might be opening up a little bit, overthrowing. I might have been rushing. I corrected them in the second inning and then thought I still had the same thing going in the third."

But he allowed four more hits in the third, forcing Garner to call for bullpen help. That's where Moehler came in.

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"I didn't feel like I made a ton of mistakes," Moehler said. "The balls I threw well, they hit, and some balls they left over the plate, they hit as well. It was one of those nights. I felt good. My fastball felt good. They hit some bad pitches, which is what big-league hitters will do. They capitalized on it."

Normally, rough Spring Training outings are not a huge area of concern, but with time running out and Garner still waiting for someone to step up and claim a legitimate place in the back end of the rotation, Thursday's effort was somewhat disconcerting.

"It was a tough night," he said. "Sampson, I don't think his ball was moving at all, and then he was up, too, to complicate matters. He just couldn't get anything going. They just got on a roll. It didn't look to me like Moehler made that bad of pitches. They just whacked a few of them.

"This is where it starts to get critical. The last outings were important. This outing become a little more important. We've got to start to tune it up for those guys that are looking to make the ballclub."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.