Three Hoping To Bag a Spot At First for Nats
Monday, March 12, 2007
VERO BEACH, Fla., March 11 -- Only a few puffy clouds dotted the otherwise perfectly blue sky Sunday afternoon over Holman Stadium. The sun beat down on the dugouts, which have no roofs to hide the players. There, Washington Nationals first baseman Larry Broadway sat, watched and wondered.
"It's baking out there," Broadway said.
Forgive Broadway for being a little warm. A pleasant breeze blew, and the 4,354 fans enjoyed cold beer, old music and a last at-bat, 10-9 victory for the Los Angeles Dodgers. To anyone in the stands, there was nary an unsettling thought to consider.
But as much as Nationals Manager Manny Acta has stood behind Ryan Church as his left fielder, behind Nook Logan in center and John Patterson on the mound, he can't make such a statement about first base, where someone must replace Nick Johnson. And that means that those involved in the competition could be in an uneasy position for weeks to come. Before Sunday's game, Broadway was asked where he stood.
"I have no idea," he said. "I have no idea what's going on."
The situation: Broadway is the 26-year-old prospect who has never played a game in the major leagues. Travis Lee is the slick-fielding veteran who hasn't had to fight for a roster spot in nearly a decade. And down on the back fields of the Nationals' complex in Viera is Dmitri Young, the veteran switch-hitter who was signed to a minor league deal early in camp but must lose some more weight before he will be permitted to play in a major league game. The competition, Acta said, will last "at least until the last week of spring training."
So Broadway and Lee will have days like Sunday, when Lee started, got his three at-bats, then gave way to the understudy that just might win his job. Both played like they wanted it Sunday, Lee driving in a run with a single in the second, another run with an opposite-field double in the third and later drawing a walk. Broadway came through with his first extra-base hit of the spring, an opposite-field double that brought home two runs, one he described as "the first ball I've kind of 'pured' " all spring.
So they were both able to shower, dress and board the bus to head back up Interstate 95 feeling good about their position. For now.
"I've been telling some of my friends that it's really different coming into camp trying to be in midseason form right away because you're trying to win a job," Lee said afterward. "That's always tough to do. . . . I just don't have that job security that I've had in the past, and that makes it tough. Sometimes you stress a little bit more about your at-bats because you want to make such a good impression."
Broadway said he is trying not to let such circumstances agitate him, but it's hard. It weighs on him, he said, "a little bit. You want to know where you stand. But that's the whole idea of the competition, I guess."
Lee, 31, has spent parts of nine seasons in the majors, and not since 1998 -- when he was one of the top prospects in baseball with the Arizona Diamondbacks -- has he been in such a position. "But back then," he said, "I was young. If I made the team, great. If not, that was fine."
So each man is trying to deal with the pressures of what otherwise appears to be a laid-back environment. Because both Lee and Broadway have reputations as superior defenders, Acta said, "We're looking for some offense." That could bring Young into the equation, because while Lee was hitting .224 and getting released by Tampa Bay last year, Young hit seven homers in 48 games before he, too, was released by the Tigers at least in part because of legal problems in which he was charged with choking his girlfriend.
Acta said he gets regular reports on Young. "I do know that he's getting in better physical shape," he said. Meantime, Lee used his 2-for-2 day Sunday to make him 3 for 9 with two doubles, five RBI and a .500 on-base percentage on the spring. Broadway, who has eight more at-bats, is hitting .294 with three RBI, and his double Sunday was his first extra-base hit.
"The way he drove the ball to the opposite field," Acta said, "that should make him feel good and everybody else feel good, too."
Lee, though, has been around long enough to know that confidence is fragile, and it could be made more so in such a situation, when each at-bat under the watchful eyes of Acta and General Manager Jim Bowden might reveal something meaningful.
"If you're 0 for 10, you're going to start pressing," Lee said. "We're human beings. We're ballplayers. No one likes to fail. You're going to stress."
As he spoke, Lee stood in sunglasses, shorts and a T-shirt beyond Holman Stadium's right field wall. Broadway was on the field, manning first. Two men at different points in their careers, dealing with similar tension.
"This game's crazy," Lee said. "Anytime you get a hit, it's like, 'Aaaaaaah.' But if you go 0 for 3, you're like, 'Oh, crap. Here we go. I need to get a hit. I need to get a hit.' It just makes it a little tougher when you're not on the team, when you don't have a job."