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Same Old Song: Nats Left Swinging in the Rain

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page D12

VIERA, Fla., March 17 -- It wasn't yet 10 a.m. Thursday when Frank Robinson walked into the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, wearing a yellow button-down shirt and black slacks, and barked to his players: "Hitters, to the cages. Pitchers, get outta here." Outside, the rain poured down, the tarp covered the field, and with just 2 1/2 weeks till the season begins, another day of preparation was lost.

"You can't recoup that time," Robinson said.

Jeffery Hammonds
Jeffery Hammonds
Nationals outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds runs through the raindrops after batting practice. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

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The rain was so persistent Thursday morning that Nationals officials called the New York Mets, who were supposed to drive north from Port St. Lucie for a game, and told them to stay home. The rainout followed a 90-minute delay of Wednesday night's game against Atlanta, not to mention two other cancellations within the past week.

Though no one in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium was panicking about the conditions or the screwed-up schedules, the frequent rainouts are having an impact. There are pitchers who need to get in their work, but were sent home without throwing Thursday. There are hitters who badly need at-bats, but instead were sent to batting cages under a metal roof beyond right field. As Robinson said, "It's not the same."

"It affects your pitching," Robinson said. "It affects guys getting at-bats. It affects you going out on the field and working on fundamentals and things. It affects you in all ways."

The most direct effect will be on right-hander Tony Armas Jr., who was supposed to make his fourth start of the spring and throw four or five innings Thursday. Instead, Armas will pitch Friday in a minor league game, allowing Esteban Loaiza to remain on his normal rest. Loaiza will pitch Friday night against the Mets in Port St. Lucie. Tomo Ohka will pitch Saturday, on regular rest, against the Cleveland Indians.

"This is the way that it screws up your rotation the least," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said.

Armas, though, will be limited to just 45 or 50 pitches, St. Claire said, because he will have to come back and pitch next Tuesday, one day earlier.

"I don't mind, as long as I get my work in," said Armas, who has allowed five earned runs in 8 2/3 innings thus far.

Robinson, though, is worried about getting his hitters prepared as well. He said that several players who have either struggled or missed time because of injury or illness -- particularly third baseman Vinny Castilla, first baseman Nick Johnson, second baseman Jose Vidro, catcher Brian Schneider and reserve Wil Cordero -- desperately need more at-bats. Cordero, for instance, has battled a respiratory ailment that swept through the team's clubhouse earlier this month. He has just eight at-bats, and Robinson said he would consider sending him to play in a minor league game in the morning and then the tail end of a major league game in the afternoon.

Seeing Red

The Nationals are heavily monitoring the progress, or lack thereof, of Cincinnati outfielder Wily Mo Peña, who is struggling during spring training and may be the odd man out in the Reds' crowded outfield. Jose Cardenal, special adviser to General Manager Jim Bowden, spent three days this week scouting Peña.

"He's not looking so good," Cardenal said. "He was swing and miss, swing and miss. . . . He's putting too much pressure on himself."

Peña is hitting just .114, with one double in 35 at-bats. But Bowden still likes Peña, who hit .259 with 26 homers and 66 RBI in 336 at-bats last year. The Reds want pitching, and a baseball source said they have inquired about Zach Day and even Livan Hernandez. No deal seems even close right now, but the Nationals are going to monitor Peña closely over the next week.

Nagging Injury

Outfielder Alex Escobar is bothered by a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg, an injury that he believes developed because he is still recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot. Though Escobar considers the injury minor, he realizes it could prevent him from getting an opportunity to make the team. He has just one hit in 12 at-bats thus far.

"When you're not on the field, there's nothing you can do," Escobar said. "You can't prove yourself. It obviously hurts me a little bit." . . .

J.J. Davis, hitting .444 and slugging .889, appears to have a much better chance to make the club. . . . The Nationals reassigned right-hander Sun Woo Kim to minor league camp. Kim, who was removed from the 40-man roster prior to spring training, pitched 5 1/3 innings, allowing two earned runs.

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