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Nats Send Down Church, Make Watson the Starter

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

VIERA, Fla., March 28 -- With less than a week to go before Opening Day, the Washington Nationals initiated another shake-up in a spring training full of mayhem on Tuesday, sending outfielder Ryan Church to Class AAA New Orleans and naming 24-year-old rookie Brandon Watson the leadoff man and center fielder to start the season.

The move again rattled a spring training that has been marked by injuries and controversy, and puts Watson -- with 40 major league at-bats -- in the position of setting the tone for Washington's offense, the worst in baseball in 2005. Even given that inexperience, when the Nationals' brass assembled to make decisions Tuesday, statistics led them to choose Watson over Church.

"As I told Ryan earlier today, Brandon Watson just beat him out," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Pure and simple, he beat him out on the baseball field. You have to perform here."

Church, 27, said he was shocked by the move, and that "I didn't think it was a competition or anything like that." Yet he had a poor spring, hitting .200 with one double and one homer in 55 at-bats.

Watson, by contrast, was told he would have the opportunity to win a starting job at the beginning of spring training, and he seized it by hitting .311 with a .368 on-base percentage before Tuesday night's 8-3 win over Cleveland. He also stole seven bases in eight attempts, showed a willingness to bunt for a base hit and sent balls to the opposite field, all qualities the Nationals wanted to see.

"It's a good feeling that they asked me to do something, and I did the best that I can," Watson said, "and they rewarded me."

As Watson prepared to win a job, Church prepared as a veteran might. He spoke earlier this week of not wanting to "fire all his bullets," and of just needing to get his timing back by Opening Day. Yet it was on precisely the corresponding day a year ago -- the Tuesday before the start of the season -- when Church first earned his way onto a major league roster for an opener. In 2005, the Nationals sent down center fielder Endy Chavez six days prior to Opening Day to make room for Church.

"This is a whole 180," Church said, "to say the least."

But as the Nationals' front office and coaching staff analyzed the situation, it became harder to make a case to keep Church over Watson given their relative performances here. Each of them had options remaining, meaning they could be sent to the minors and would remain in club control.

"Brandon Watson outplayed him, out-hit him, got on base, stole bases, got a good percentage of stolen bases, did the things that we asked him to do," Bowden said. "And he deserves that shot. You can't ask him to do any more than he's done in this spring training."

Now, the Nationals must ask Church to commit himself to working hard in New Orleans. Both Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson said Church, who was visibly shaken after receiving the news, responded exactly as they would want, "like a true professional," Robinson said.

"I'm not going to go down there and sulk and keep [my] head down," Church said. "I don't belong there, I'll tell you that. I'm just going to go down there and play my [butt] off and show everybody that I don't belong there."

Bowden said the move is far from an indication that the organization has given up on Church, who hit .287 with nine homers and 42 RBI as a rookie in 2005, but never truly rebounded from shoulder and rib injuries suffered when he crashed into the left field wall making a game-ending catch in June in Pittsburgh. Throughout his tenure with the franchise, Bowden has been among Church's strongest supporters and was the driving force behind giving him a chance last season. Tuesday, he said, "Ryan will be back."

"We need to get Ryan hitting like he's capable of hitting," Bowden said. "He's had a poor spring. . . . At this level, we don't want to wait and see it. He doesn't have enough of a track record and history to say he's all of a sudden going to do it when the bell rings."

Watson was called up briefly last August, and after a splashy debut in which he hit a homer and a double, he was used sparingly. He ended up being sent back to New Orleans and was recalled in September. In 25 major league games, he hit .175 and was caught both times he attempted steals.

Now, he will head into the season as the everyday center fielder. The Nationals wanted the left-handed hitting Church to play every day, part of the reason they sent him to New Orleans, so he could face left-handed pitching and "get him straight," as Bowden said. Marlon Byrd, who is out of options, is a right-handed hitter who is having an outstanding spring, but Robinson said Watson would play against lefties -- beginning in the opener, when the Nationals are due to face the New York Mets' Tom Glavine.

Watson faced Glavine three times last season, singling once. But he has never done it in such a situation as Monday, when he will see the first pitch of the 2006 season from the 20-year veteran. So as he left Space Coast Stadium Tuesday night, Watson had a videotape of Glavine in his backpack. The work to make the team was over, but the real work lies ahead.

"I came in and just did what I can to help myself and the team, and do the things that they asked . . . " Watson said. "This is the result."

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