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Blanco Is Finding a Zone

Nats' Hard-Hitting Rookie Becomes More Selective at Plate

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page D06

VIERA, Fla., March 25 -- When the bouncing ball found its way between Baltimore Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora and shortstop Miguel Tejada, racing into left field, it was a surprise to almost no one who has watched Washington Nationals' Grapefruit League games. The ball, after all, came off the bat of Tony Blanco, and no one on the Nationals has whacked more hard-hit balls than Blanco this spring training.

"I'm getting more comfortable," Blanco said.

Tony Blanco
Tony Blanco
Third baseman Tony Blanco, selected in the Rule 5 draft from Cincinnati in December, appears likely to make Washington's Opening Day roster. (Toni L. Sandys - Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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By now, he should be sized up for a Nationals uniform -- white at home, gray on the road -- and get comfortable in it, because it would take a monumental shift in the organization's thinking to leave the third baseman off the 25-man roster when final cuts are made.

Blanco was selected in the Rule 5 draft from Cincinnati in December, meaning the Nationals must keep him on the major league roster all season or offer him back to the Reds. But at this rate, the Reds shouldn't wait by the phone. Blanco's single in two at-bats Friday has him hitting .333 this spring. But that's not the important part. The important part is how quickly his hands get into hitting position, how the ball jumps off his bat, how consistently he hits the ball hard.

"I've been very impressed with his at-bats," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Not only has he had some big RBIs, but just real good at-bats."

When Blanco arrived at spring training, he had two knocks on him. They said he couldn't hit breaking pitches, and they said he couldn't field.

"Everybody said he can't hit the curveball," Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "Who can? If you can't hit the fastball, you can't hit in the big leagues. That's the pitch you're going to hit most of the time. . . . Who can hit a good breaking ball? I don't know him, and I know all the good hitters."

Still, in a game earlier this spring, McCraw noticed Blanco swinging and missing at breaking balls out of the strike zone. He called him over between at-bats. Be more patient, more selective, McCraw said. Look for fastballs until there are two strikes.

"The next at-bat," Bowden said, "he does, and he gets a big hit. . . . When you look at a young player like that, with that kind of ceiling, that kind of upside, what impresses you is that they take instruction and they make adjustments and they have work ethic -- and they care."

Thus, at 23, Blanco has tried to alter his approach this spring to show he can work, to show he cares. He's trying not to be the free-swinging kid who, through the course of his six-year minor league career, struck out once every four at-bats. It's a slow adjustment. In 29 plate appearances, he has seven strikeouts and five walks.

"I make a plan before I get to bat," Blanco said. "I have a good plan going [up to the plate]. I try to hit fastballs before two strikes."

The other issue -- fielding -- is more complicated. At times, he looked competent and comfortable, as when he took a relay throw from second baseman Jose Vidro and tagged out Baltimore's Brian Roberts, who was trying to stretch a double into a triple. At other times, he looked iffy, as when a throw came in from left field, and he treated it like an ignited firecracker. He played mostly left field last season in Class A and Class AA with the Cincinnati organization, but he is more likely to get time at either third or first with the Nationals.

But even with third baseman Vinny Castilla out for the past week with a hyperextended left knee, Manager Frank Robinson said he's not sure he would put Blanco at third in the opener.

"I might feel more comfortable with [utility man] Jamey Carroll in there starting," Robinson said. "I don't know if it'd be fair to just put a Blanco in there at the big league level on Opening Day."

In a way, it makes sense, because Blanco has never appeared in a major league game. He was once the second-ranked prospect in the Boston Red Sox' system, but was traded to Cincinnati with pitching prospect Josh Thigpen for second baseman Todd Walker following the 2002 season. The move was hard to take, because Blanco always envisioned coming up with Boston. "That was my dream," he said.

Now, his dream has been transferred to Washington.

"I trust myself," Blanco said. "If they give me a chance, I'm going to do a good job."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company