Hit, or Miss

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, April 1, 2006

Everybody knows what's wrong with the Nationals. We've listened to the litany since last fall when Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco left town. We heard the wails when Brian Lawrence and Luis Ayala were lost for the season to injuries. Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas, Pedro Astacio, Jon Rauch and Ryan Drese are scary candidates for three rotation spots. All these pitching woes are true. And with no fat-wallet owner yet named by baseball, the situation won't change soon.

But, as usual in baseball, there's a yin for every yang. Bad news beats a brass drum. Good news, especially before a season starts, travels quietly. Although almost everything ugly has happened to Nats pitchers, an equally large number of factors have fallen in place to help the Washington offense. The lineup hasn't reached its final configuration. But finally the pieces exist.

Hints of that potential were on display last night as the Nationals lost to the Orioles, 9-6, in their next-to-last exhibition game.

Jose Vidro, hobbled most of last season, finally looks like the switch-hitting all-star of Montreal days. In his first at-bat, he laced a single to center, then walked (both times hitting left-handed) and later doubled in a run batting right-handed. Once, he scored from first base on a double and, in general, moved more than adequately. Since a coaching session with Manager Frank Robinson, he's hit like a confident and cured man. A star the Nats feared they might have lost now may have been found. The reappearance of the real Vidro would be like a free agent signing.

Jose Guillen returned to RFK where he suffered a miserable second half of last season after a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery and months of rehabilitation. The right fielder scalded a two-run double off the left field wall, made one of his patented 400-foot outs on an opposite-field blast and lined out to left. By then the baseballs were quaking in the ump's belt bags.

Ryan Zimmerman has looked so impressive at the plate all spring (with seven homers in 75 at-bats in Florida) that he may be hitting in the heart of the order by June. Unfortunately, his much-heralded glove is in a coma. The rookie made his eighth exhibition error and seemed rattled. Who'd have guessed? The 21-year-old's bat may be ready before his glove. On a team with enough leather, but a shortage of lumber, that's a trade the Nationals will make. Zimmerman lashed doubles to left-center and right-center. He spends more time in the alleys than a bowler. The first double came on a Kris Benson curveball, the second was the product of aggressive base running with a head-first dive.

For months, Alfonso Soriano said he wouldn't play the outfield. Now he's out there. He may not be happy, but he slugged .739 in his eight games in Florida. A surprisingly large crowd (considering full regular season ticket prices) cheered Soriano generously when he led off the game. Now the issue is whether to bat him at the top of the lineup, emphasizing his 30-steal speed, or in the middle, hoping for 100 RBI from a player who's averaged 35 homers. These are problems the '05 Nats never imagined.

Perhaps the night's unexpected pleasure was the kind of game from rookie center fielder Brandon Watson that has fascinated Robinson all spring. Watson grounded a chop single into center field, just as he's supposed to do, then stole second base easily and scored. He also beat out an infield hit on an almost routine chop to first base. On a drag-bunt attempt, he was barely nipped. Perhaps most important, Watson made as spectacular a full-out diving grab of a liner in the left-field gap as any Nats center fielder provided last year. If his defense in center has been a question mark, that play was an exclamation point.

Two familiar Nats faces, those of Nick Johnson and Brian Schneider, have that March-slump expression -- not worried, but a bit annoyed. However, both are proven commodities, especially Johnson, who is one of the game's more efficient hitters. With Royce Clayton, who hit .270 for Arizona last year, at shortstop, there shouldn't be a weak out in the lineup. Even Cristian Guzman's shoulder injury has conspired to get his anemic bat out of the lineup, at least for now.

The quiet confluence of all these factors is quite striking. What hasn't fallen into place? Vidro and Guillen have, if anything, recovered faster and more completely than expected. Soriano's outfield protest is over and his new position hasn't (yet) contaminated his hitting. That's just good luck. Meanwhile, the team's rookies, Zimmerman and Watson, have developed the kinds of starts that may have given them confidence. And Johnson hasn't gotten hurt.

In addition to these factors, outfielder Marlon Byrd has hit well all spring and the entire bench has been significantly improved with Matthew LeCroy and Marlon Anderson. The Nats even have enough depth to send Ryan Church to the minors, a shock to him but a sign that, as the pitching staff has been hurt and diminished, the team's hitters seem blessed with health.

Curiously, the Nats seem far more aware of their weakened pitching than they do of their offensive potential. The team identified itself so completely with winning tightly played games that it seems disoriented after a 9-21 spring record blotched by amateurish defense and erratic pitching whenever Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Ortiz have not been on the mound.

Like many fans, the Nats seem entirely aware of their flaws. Hernandez called a players-only meeting on Thursday to appeal for a sharper focus entering the season. Robinson has been frustrated all spring by the absence of key players at the World Baseball Classic. Many franchises have the organizational depth to ignore playing short-handed. The Nats aren't even close.

"I've never had a spring training that was anything like this," General Manager Jim Bowden said of the general discombobulation caused by injuries, crazy fielding mistakes and pitching implosions. "This team has potential if it blends right."

But the opposite is also true. If the Nationals don't come together rather quickly, compensating for their reduced pitching with an empowered offense, they may find themselves with an April record almost as dismal as their spring training mark.

Teams form, and reform their identities slowly. The Nats have internalized all the problems to their pitching. They seem to have forgotten that, when healthy, Guillen has driven in 100 runs and Vidro has hit .320 while Johnson and Soriano once teamed up on the right side of the New York infield to help the Yankees reach the World Series. Watson hit .355 last year in Class AAA and Zimmerman is the same age (21) when many of the greatest current players -- like Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey and Andruw Jones -- were already at or near the peak of their offensive prowess.

Last night, a spirited crowd greeted the rival Orioles cordially and the Nationals tolerantly in a high-scoring Baltimore victory that bore far too many resemblances to many ragged Washington games this spring.

In just three days, Opening Day arrives and the Nationals must hit the ground running. This season, as odd as it may seem to the Nats, the operative word for this season may have to be "hit."

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