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Nationals Notebook

Beginning, End: Seeking a Leadoff Hitter, Closer

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page E07

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., April 2 -- Even after 47 days of baseball in Florida, Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson will bring two of his team's biggest spring training questions back to Washington with him today:

Will the Nationals have a definitive closer? Who will lead off?

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"It's probably going to be a Sunday night decision," Robinson said, "and I'll lock everything in Monday morning."

The clubhouse waits anxiously. Pitcher Chad Cordero -- who will be either the closer or one of the closers -- said Friday that, ideally, he would like a defined role. Brad Wilkerson -- who expects to be the leadoff hitter despite not holding that spot all spring -- said inconsistency in the batting order might be keeping the offense from finding its rhythm.

Robinson, though, remains noncommittal. Even though clubhouse sentiment holds that Wilkerson is the obvious choice for a leadoff hitter, Nick Johnson batted in that spot for the third consecutive game Saturday, going 3 for 5 with a home run in a 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field. Why did Johnson, a first baseman with six career steals, hit first?

"We just put him up there again," Robinson said, "because where else am I going to go?"

He remained equally indecisive about selecting a closer. Even after Cordero's one-hit ninth inning in a 3-2 win over the Devil Rays on Friday, Robinson brought in Luis Ayala as the closer Saturday. Ayala retired two and walked three before Cordero came in to force the final out, a tag-out at home that saved the tying run.

"I'm happy with the whole bullpen," Robinson said. "It's just a matter of deciding who I would choose if it's more than one person, or if I would just go with one person."

Some Strong Arms

Esteban Loaiza closed out a promising spring for the Nationals' pitching staff on an appropriately high note. He retired the first 13 Tampa Bay batters he faced and allowed just one earned run in seven innings.

Washington starting pitchers Livan Hernandez, Tomo Ohka, Zach Day and Loaiza have combined for a 2.55 ERA this spring, and Loaiza might have pitched best. In 27 Grapefruit League innings, Loaiza has walked one batter. He's scheduled to pitch the Nationals' third game of the season, Thursday in Philadelphia.

"I feel really great," Loaiza said. "I couldn't feel much better with the season about to start."

Hitting Well

The Nationals' 13 base hits and five runs against Tampa Bay marked their highest offensive totals in 12 games. . . . Terrmel Sledge, who sat out Friday with a minor left calf strain, had a single in two at-bats as the designated hitter.

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