VIERA, Fla., March 6 -- They followed each other into the batting cage, one after the other Sunday morning. Alex Escobar went first, and Jim Bowden, the Washington Nationals' general manager, said from behind the cage, "Let's go, A.E." Escobar responded by spraying line drives around the outfield.
Ryan Church was next, and after he lofted a fly ball to the outfield, Bowden said quietly: "Line drives, now. Let's go." Church sent the next pitch screaming to right-center field. "That's it," Bowden said.
"I just want to make the team," said 26-year-old Nats reserve outfield prospect Alex Escobar.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Bowden, in his first season as the franchise's GM, is using every opportunity to evaluate his players. And though the Nationals have several positions locked up, battles are raging for what Manager Frank Robinson considers to be key reserve spots. Last year, when the team was the Montreal Expos, the bench was far too thin. Competition between talented players such as Church and Escobar gives Robinson hope that the pool will be deeper this season.
Church, a 26-year-old who grew up in California, was a 14th-round pick by Cleveland in 2000. Escobar, a 26-year-old who grew up in Venezuela, was the top prospect in the New York Mets' system in 2001. Different backgrounds, same goal.
"I just want to make the team," Escobar said late Sunday afternoon.
"I just want an opportunity," Church said earlier.
Both played in Sunday's 9-4 victory over the Houston Astros, Church in center field, Escobar in right. Church went 2 for 5 with a double and two runs, Escobar went 0 for 3 and drove in a run.
Each has had a discussion with Bowden about his prospects for making the team, and each is realistic. Brad Wilkerson and Jose Guillen will be the starting outfielders, and Terrmel Sledge will almost certainly make the team as well. Though some Nationals officials doubt his ability, Robinson wants Endy Chavez to win the job as the center fielder and leadoff hitter, because it would allow Wilkerson to hit lower in the order.
Barring a trade -- always a possibility with Bowden at the helm -- that leaves Escobar, Church, J.J. Davis, Tyrell Godwin and perhaps Jeffrey Hammonds fighting for one spot. Church has an option remaining, meaning he could be shipped to the minors without other teams getting a chance to claim him. Escobar does not.
"It's a business, and it's going to be a business decision," Church said. "I understand that."
After hitting .343 in Class AAA last season, Church made his major league debut in September with the Expos. He ripped out three hits in his first major league start.
"He kind of teased me," Robinson said. "The first game, he got three hits. After that, I think he got three more."
Robinson smiled. Truth be told, he was impressed by how Church handled himself. Church wasn't overwhelmed, Robinson said, despite hitting just .175 with a homer and six RBI in 63 at-bats. The calm, though, was apparently on the outside.
"Man, it's everything you dream of when you get there," Church said, smiling. "I mean, I'm facing Greg Maddux. Greg Maddux. But you've got to find a way to just do what you need to do."
Church, outgoing and expressive, keeps a locker just one removed from Escobar, quiet and reserved. Perhaps it's because Escobar has been through so much. Acquired in a trade for Jerry Owens two days before camp opened, he missed all of 2002 after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament during spring training. Last season with Cleveland, he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. He was waived and picked up by the Chicago White Sox -- for whom he never played -- before being shipped to Washington. Blessed with a sweet swing and strong arm, he has hit just .229 with nine homers in 301 major league at-bats.
"I feel more comfortable every time I'm out there," Escobar said. "It's been awhile since I've played every day. . . . I feel like my health is the most important thing, because I know that if I'm healthy, I can be the player I once was."
Robinson, while quick to point out that he doesn't make early judgments on players, said he understands why Escobar was so highly thought of. "He certainly looks like he has some talent, and I mean that sincerely," Robinson said. "The ball jumps off his bat."
And Escobar has an idea of how Bowden feels about him. In 2000, when Bowden was with the Cincinnati Reds, he agreed to trade all-star shortstop Barry Larkin to the Mets for Escobar.
The Reds, though, signed Larkin to a contract extension instead, and it took until now for the two to work together.
"I know he's high on me," Escobar said. "I've just got to show that I deserve a chance. It's like anybody in here. We have to prove we deserve the opportunity."