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Up First for the Nats: Chavez

Leadoff Hitter Is Key to Team's Offense, Defense

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 28 -- The key to the Washington Nationals' lineup isn't named Vidro, Wilkerson or Guillen. He is neither accomplished nor washed-up. He won't contend for a batting title or hit show-stopping home runs. Stop Washingtonians on the street, hold up his picture, and more people would likely guess he's a non-descript school teacher or lobbyist than a center fielder, leadoff hitter and essential piece of baseball's on-field return to Washington.

No, the key to the Nationals' lineup is Endy Chavez, an unassuming 27-year-old from Venezuela whose notable baseball achievements include being waived by three teams and hitting .264 in parts of four major league seasons. But of the players gathered here for Nationals' spring training, none has been given a more specific checklist of tasks he must master over the next month than Chavez. He must get on base. He mustn't hack at every pitch within three zip codes of the strike zone. He must, as hitting coach Tom McCraw said, "start to enjoy messing with the pitcher's head."

For the Nats to succeed, Endy Chavez must improve his on-base percentage of .318 last season. "They've told me," Chavez says. "I've heard it." (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"They've told me," Chavez said. "I've heard it."

Chavez has heard all those things since 2002, when he first came to the Expos, the team that moved to Washington this offseason to become the Nationals. But never has his potential contribution been more important than this season. Manager Frank Robinson badly wants Chavez to win the center field job and bat first because so many other things fall into place if that happens.

If Chavez gets on base frequently enough to warrant leading off, budding star Brad Wilkerson can drop to, say, fifth in the lineup, where he may drive in 100 runs. If Chavez plays center, then Wilkerson can stay in left, meaning Nick Johnson can play first base, and the Nationals would field their best defensive team, for Chavez can cover plenty of ground. But like so many things with this team -- one that lost 95 games in 2004 -- the Chavez issue is preceded by one "if" after another.

"I have to work on the stuff that they want me to work on," Chavez said. "They want me to get on base and score more runs. That's my goal."

Last year, he couldn't hold onto the leadoff spot -- one he acquiesced to Wilkerson -- because he walked just 30 times in 547 plate appearances, a horrific rate. He hit .277 and stole 32 bases, but it hardly mattered, because his on-base percentage was just .318, including an unforgivable .291 when batting first. The result: He scored just 65 runs. This year, the goal has been clearly stated. The Nationals want Chavez to score 100 times. Doesn't matter how. Just think that way. Make it happen.

"Leading off is a mentality," McCraw said. "You have to understand it. You have to tailor your thinking to each and every situation. When you get to the point where you can enjoy creating havoc, where you can think in terms of scoring 100 runs -- not in terms of driving in 75 or 80 -- then you've done as good a job as [second baseman Jose] Vidro's done or as good a job as Wilkerson's done, because you've done your job. That's all we want him to do -- to do his job."

His job, though, is multifaceted and more than a bit complex. Get this: One problem Chavez has is that when he swings, he hits the ball. Yes, you read that correctly. For Chavez, putting bat on ball too much is problematic.

Robinson explains it thusly. In the instances when Chavez is fortunate to work the count to, say, 3-1, his natural aggressiveness takes over. As Chavez said, "I like to swing the bat. It's hard not to." But because he rarely swings and misses or fouls a ball back, swinging at 3-1 can turn an at-bat in which Chavez held the advantage into a harmless groundout or popup. So in such situations, Robinson wants something different from a guy who's supposed to be a leadoff hitter.

"Occasionally, you're going to have to say to yourself, 'I'm going to take this pitch, and I'll go 3-2 and make him throw another pitch,' " Robinson said. "He has to, each at-bat, understand the situation, and then that will dictate what you should do that at-bat. Each at-bat is different, so look at it that way."

Robinson and McCraw have made these points to Chavez repeatedly since the Expos claimed him off waivers from the New York Mets three years ago. The manager and hitting coach have, at times, grown so frustrated with Chavez's lack of patience that they have rolled their eyes in the dugout, thrown up their hands, done anything to demonstrate their disgust. It came to a head last May, when Chavez, quite simply, was sick of hearing about his struggles. So he met with Robinson and McCraw.

"I just thought that I needed to relax more," Chavez said.

Robinson understood.

"Sometimes, it comes [to] a time where you're talked out," he said. "You know what you're saying is not getting through. The individual is tired of hearing it, so leave him alone. It's not that you're not interested in [his] well-being. It's just that you're saying, 'I'm going to leave you alone and let you go, and if you need me, I'm here. We're here. We're not abandoning you.' "

The Nationals, badly, don't want to abandon Chavez this year, for Robinson staunchly believes, as he said he told Chavez, "I want you to make this team, because we'll be a better ballclub with you here."

Everybody at Space Coast Stadium, whether they have been with the ballclub or not, seems to understand that. The other day, as Chavez took cuts in the batting cage, new outfielder Jose Guillen stood off to the side, chatting with a few folks about his new team. As Chavez swung, Guillen turned and said quietly, "That's the key, right there. He's the key to us surprising people."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company