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A Silent Spring for Castilla

Slump Is of No Bother To Nationals' Slugger

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page D03

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 16 -- The leading run-producer in the National League last year is a month into his first spring training with the Washington Nationals, and he has exactly one RBI. Wednesday night, he doubled his hit total for the spring by fisting an infield single to third base, an at-bat sandwiched around a bouncer that led to a double play and a strikeout.

But as Vinny Castilla sat on a stool and prepared to toss a few cards with teammates in the visitors' clubhouse at Cracker Jack Stadium, he wouldn't even shrug his shoulders at what would appear to be his spring training struggles.

Third baseman Vinny Castilla, a month into his first spring training with the Nationals, has exactly one RBI. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

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"I'll be ready April 4," Castilla said. "When they turn the lights on, you can count on me."

The Nationals aren't counting on Castilla to be the man he was last year in Colorado, when he hit 35 homers and drove in 131 runs to lead the NL. But they are counting on him to produce much more than he has thus far, for before Wednesday's rain-delayed game, he was hitting and slugging .105.

Castilla was in Wednesday night's lineup against the Atlanta Braves, the organization he came up with in 1991, the one he played for again in 2002 and 2003. It was another opportunity to get some at-bats, to work some things out. But given Castilla's patient, carefree approach, the fact that the game was delayed 90 minutes by rain mattered little.

"I feel good," he said. "This is how it is for veteran guys. It doesn't matter now."

The organization is taking that stance, for Castilla isn't the only seasoned major leaguer struggling in the Grapefruit League. The Nationals signed Castilla to a two-year, $6.2 million contract in the offseason. In effect, he replaces Tony Batista, who hit 32 homers and drove in 110 runs for the franchise last year, when they played as the Montreal Expos. Slumps or not, the Nationals plan on sticking Castilla at third base and not worrying about the spot for 140 or 150 games.

"He's not being graded on his batting average in spring training," Manager Frank Robinson said. "He's going to be here."

If the Nationals -- who were woeful offensively last year -- are going to have any measure of success, Castilla will have to be a significant part of it. General Manager Jim Bowden said prior to spring training that the club has reasonable expectations for Castilla. They aren't to drive in 120 runs, or even 100. They are to do what he did from 2001 to '03, when he played for Houston, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. He hit .256 and averaged 19 homers and 76 RBI during that time.

"He can still do that," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. "There's no reason he can't. He's still quick. . . . Spring training's spring training. Veteran guys don't have to be ready till the opening bell. I just loved the kid."

The problem, though, is that he's not a kid. At 37, Castilla will be under more scrutiny when he goes into a slump than he would have, say, in 1998, when he was at the height of his tenure with the Rockies. That year, he hit .319 with 46 homers and 144 RBI, all career highs for a season in which he played more than 60 games.

Throw out those numbers, though. They can't be reasonably expected again. As Castilla sat in the clubhouse, before the skies opened up, he said what he learned with the Braves -- the team that has won every NL East title since he broke into the big leagues -- is almost as important as any on-field production he might bring.

"It's a winning organization," Castilla said. "There's a great feeling when you go out to the field and have that feeling that you have a chance to win. Everybody in that clubhouse knows it. They've got a good chance to win every night. . . . You learn a lot there."

The Braves, in turn, learned something about Castilla while he was there. "He's as good a third baseman as I've ever seen in baseball," Cox said. "Consistent. Great hands. Great, accurate arm."

Robinson, too, believes Castilla hasn't lost anything defensively. So as the battle for the last few roster spots on the Nationals takes shape over the next few weeks, Castilla will quietly get his at-bats, quietly take his grounders, and quietly prepare for, as he said, the lights to go on.

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