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Washington Springs Forward to Baseball

But Lineup Questions Linger As Nats Get a Final Tuneup: Mets 4, Nationals 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page D01

They only scored in one inning, typical of a frustrating offensive spring. Their starting center fielder, who has held his job for less than a week, left the game with a tight groin. The lineup could be determined by placing names in a popcorn popper and seeing what kernel falls where. And the weather felt distinctly un-spring-like, rather like those old November Sundays at RFK Stadium, when the wind howled, Coach Gibbs roamed the sidelines and Theismann and Riggo worked behind the Hogs.

Forget about it, they said. The Washington Nationals -- in Washington for the first time as a team -- don't care where the prognosticators pick them. Yesterday, baseball returned to Washington, albeit in an exhibition game in front of 25,453 fans wearing parkas and blankets instead of tank tops and shades. And the team that will make the nation's capital a major league city after 33 dark summers says it will be more than competitive, beginning with the first game in club history today in Philadelphia against the Phillies.

RFK Stadium was the setting yesterday as the Nationals lost to the Mets in their last game before their season opener today in Philadelphia. "We're ready to play," Manager Frank Robinson said. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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"Mark it down: We're going to be a better team," pitcher Joey Eischen said. "My expectations are very high. Very, very high. Look around. Look at what we added. The chemistry is here. The mix of veterans and young guys is here. If we stay healthy, this is going to be a good baseball team."

At times this spring, it hasn't looked like it, and it has been a concern to those running the club, from Manager Frank Robinson to General Manager Jim Bowden. Yesterday, following a 4-3 loss to the New York Mets, there was more reason to worry. In the top of the fourth inning, center fielder Ryan Church turned to track down what eventually became a home run by Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd. Church, who accounted for all of the Nationals' scoring with a three-run homer the inning before, felt the tightness in his right groin. At the top of the fifth, he came off the field and told the team's athletic trainer, Tim Abraham. He was removed from the game, and the team described his status as "day-to-day."

"I'll play tomorrow," Church said.

Robinson, though, wasn't so sure. He planned to spend the 75-minute train ride to Philadelphia last night writing down various lineups, trying to figure out what might work best. Church became the center fielder only last Tuesday, when Endy Chavez was demoted to Class AAA New Orleans. If Church is out, the logical solution would be to move left fielder Brad Wilkerson to center and start Terrmel Sledge in left. Asked after the game if Wilkerson would be his Opening Day center fielder because of Church's injury, the notoriously cautious Robinson said, "Right now, I would say yes."

The turmoil in the lineup has been such a constant over the last week that the players seemed to shrug it off and move on yesterday. Nick Johnson, the first baseman who had never before hit leadoff, batted first for the fifth straight game yesterday, collecting one hit in four at-bats. Still, Wilkerson, who hit first 107 times last season, is probably the most logical choice to lead off. Twenty-four hours before the first game in their gray road uniforms, players didn't know what the lineup would be or where they would play.

"What can you do?" Johnson said. "You come to the park, check the lineup, and go out and do the job."

Whether the Nationals can do the job is a completely different matter. Four offseason additions -- third baseman Vinny Castilla, right fielder Jose Guillen, shortstop Cristian Guzman and pitcher Esteban Loaiza -- have added defense, some offensive pop and a starting pitcher who could contribute 200 innings. But the team is still a scrubbed-up version of last year's Montreal Expos, who moved here, were handed new uniforms and christened the Nationals. That team lost 95 games. A 10- or even 12-game improvement still means a losing record.

"But with last year's team, you could write a story about everything that could go wrong to a baseball team," catcher Brian Schneider said. "We had so many injuries, so many things go wrong."

Church's injury aside, the team comes into the season relatively healthy. Right-hander Tony Armas Jr., expected to be the team's number two starter, is on the disabled list with a strained groin, but is only supposed to miss three or four starts. And that's it.

With health, for now, a minor concern, attitude has been the prime topic in the Nationals' clubhouse. Yesterday was the seventh game since Robinson closed the doors to the team's clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, Fla., following a loss to the Mets. He told them then that they needed to pick it up in order to be ready for the season.

"We've got too much talent on this team to be doing what we were doing," Wilkerson said.

Robinson said the effort and intensity have improved over the last three or four days. The offense, though, remains a concern. The Nationals managed just six hits yesterday, and finished the spring by scoring three runs or less in nine of their final 12 games.

"I'm not apprehensive about the team being ready," Robinson said. "We're ready to play. . . . We seem to score in one or two innings, and that's it. We need to be more consistent."

That could well be a theme, beginning today. Bowden said earlier in the spring that the Nationals' fate will likely be determined by how they fare in low-scoring, one-run games, games just like yesterday's. Six of Washington's final seven exhibition games were one-run affairs. The Nationals won three and lost three.

"I think we learned a lot about our team this spring," Bowden said. "We learned what we can have and what we still need -- and we still do need some pieces. But I'm excited. I think we can surprise some people."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company