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Many Questions, Few Answers as Nats Break Camp

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., April 1 -- The Washington Nationals packed up and left Space Coast Stadium on Friday without the optimism that often characterizes such spring training departures.

The past 10 days have left Manager Frank Robinson with more questions -- How will the offense score? Who will lead off? Will the team be healthy? -- than he can answer. And with only two exhibition games left before Monday's season opener in Philadelphia, the Nationals manager spoke of the coming season with anxiety, not anticipation.

Frank Robinson helps lighten the load before heading north: "I'm like a parent with his kid going off to school for the first time: 'Is he prepared?' " (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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Robinson suggested that the Nationals are less prepared to leave spring training than last year's Montreal Expos, who lost 95 games and finished in last place.

"I just feel like we needed a few extra days here with the bats and the injuries and things like that," Robinson said "This is what I fret over, that type of thing. . . . I felt like when we left last year, that team was ready -- physically, mentally ready to go. And right now, I feel like we're not quite ready to approach the season yet."

As the Nationals cleared out their lockers Friday, packing jerseys and bats into cardboard boxes in preparation of Saturday's exhibition game at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, players reflected on a spring training that seemed to take a turn for the worse Sunday. It was then that pitcher Tony Armas Jr. suffered a groin pull that forced him onto the 15-day disabled list and Robinson questioned his players' effort and intensity.

He's still waiting for answers.

Even after Friday's 3-2 win over the visiting Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Washington has scored only 22 runs in its last 10 games. Nationals hitters are batting .210 during that stretch. According to Robinson, they're swinging at too many pitches early in the count and being too cautious in their base running.

"I'd like to see the offense. Period. The offense," Robinson said. "And that's almost everybody in the lineup, so I'm not sure you're going to get that going in one or two ballgames. The offense is what bothers me right now."

Those hitting struggles have made it nearly impossible for Robinson to finalize his batting order. The Nationals' month-long search for a leadoff hitter has been a study in trial and error: Center fielder Endy Chavez was slotted there until he hit .212 this spring and was optioned to Class AAA New Orleans on Tuesday; Cristian Guzman went 0 for 7 when he led off in two games this week; Nick Johnson, a first baseman with six career steals, batted first in the last two games with minimal success.

And Friday, Nationals outfielder Brad Wilkerson said that he expected to lead off in the opener and become the first Washington hitter since the 1971 season. Wilkerson hit first in 107 games for the Expos last season and had a .382 on-base percentage from that slot.

"I really expect to be batting leadoff," said Wilkerson, who has hit fifth for most of spring training. "I don't see anybody else who's going to do it. They've been experimenting a lot, and until you get the consistent lineup in there you are not going to be able to do all the things you want to do.

"We're in a lull here, and we need a kick in the butt. Maybe starting the regular season will do it for us."

Players blame nagging aches and injuries for disrupting the Nationals' offense. Terrmel Sledge suffered a minor left calf strain Thursday and, after being examined by the team doctor Friday, is listed as day-to-day. Vinny Castilla played for the second time Friday since hyperextending his left knee 13 days earlier. Wilkerson has complained about tightness in his back. Jose Guillen sat out yesterday with flu-like symptoms.

"It would be nice if everybody could have had a few more at-bats, but you've got to be healthy first," catcher Brian Schneider said. "I'm ready to get the season started, but the timing is a little bad."

Of the same mind, Robinson concluded his daily media session by offering reporters a few suggestions for the final headlines for spring training.

"Headline: Robinson worried about team," he said. "Robinson doesn't like team. Robinson says team stinks."

He was joking, of course. But this joke came with a disclaimer.

"The jury is still out," Robinson said. "I like what we have here, don't get me wrong. But I guess I'm like a parent with his kid going off to school for the first time: 'Is he prepared? Is he fully prepared?' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company