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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H13

Keep in mind -- amidst all the glow of optimism from spring training -- that the Nationals lost 95 games in 2004 (when they were the Montreal Expos) for a reason: They weren't very good. Yes, the offseason additions -- defense on the left side with Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman, some pop from the cleanup spot in Jose Guillen, and a workable starter in Esteban Loaiza -- will help. But look at the rest of the division, probably the deepest and most competitive in baseball, and it's easy to see how the Nationals could scratch their way to .500 -- and still finish last.

"We might not have the guns other teams in our division do, but that doesn't mean we won't compete," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Robinson was asked all spring about whether the club's newfound certainty -- no questions about its future, no trips to play "home" games in Puerto Rico -- will have an impact on performance. He believes it will. But this is an outfit that can't afford to give anything away. Not extra outs. Not at-bats. Not anything.

That said, it'd be surprising if the Nationals finish with the second-worst record in the National League, as they did last season. The rotation, from front to back, isn't half bad; each member but Zach Day has won at least 10 games in the past (Day has won nine). The lineup is improved, though there will be tremendous pressure on Endy Chavez to reach base regularly and on Nick Johnson to stay healthy and reach some of his potential. An injury to any of several players -- Jose Vidro, Guzman, Castilla, Brian Schneider or Livan Hernandez -- would seriously derail any chance at .500.

-- Barry Svrluga

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