On Sunday, Lastings Milledge, who would very much like to be the Nationals' center fielder, stated his case with a single, two doubles and three RBI. Wily Mo Pe¿a, who'd also love a regular spot in that same outfield, cranked a long home run in an 8-3 win over Houston. So on Monday, in the spring tradition of taking turns, 'twas time for outfielders Elijah Dukes and Justin Maxwell to make cases for themselves. Dukes lashed a line-drive home run through a crosswind over the left field fence and Maxwell stroked a pair of hard singles while adding a sprinting catch in center field as the Nats beat St. Louis, 3-2.
A year ago, Nats spring training was not about competition. It was about prayer. Please, oh, please, let us unearth five starting pitchers who won't humiliate themselves. Is there a center fielder anywhere to be found? As for first base, the Nats looked at anyone with two legs and a pulse, including washed-up Travis Lee and powerless prospect Larry Broadway. Bench strength, are you kidding? Washington could barely send a respectable team on the field, much less worry about depth.
Now, all that is drastically changed. Will Nick Johnson or Dmitri Young start at first base? Which two veterans, from among Cristian Guzm¿n (.328 batting average last season), Ronnie Belliard (.290) and Felipe L¿pez (.245), will man the middle infield? Somebody has to sit. Will Paul Lo Duca or Johnny Estrada, both veterans, both injured, be the catcher? Or will Jes¿s Flores, 23, kick down the door and blow up everybody's plans? Will Dukes, a natural center fielder, find a crack in the lineup? And which of seven plausible candidates will fill out the five-man pitching rotation?
"It's a battle everywhere. So many guys and so few positions," said closer Chad Cordero, who leads the only unit where jobs are secure -- the bullpen, in which Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera and Jes¿s Colome all know their supporting roles and only a situational lefty, perhaps Ray King, must be added by Opening Day.
"The fight's going to come right down to the end of camp," Cordero said. "Our bench will be one of the best in the game. We've got two good-hitting catchers [both career averages .280 or above]. Dukes would hit 30 homers if he played every day. Dmitri or Nick has to come off the bench. L¿pez or Belliard, too, probably. We're going to have guys on our bench who are as good or better than the regulars. That's the way it is for every [good] team."
While his players have to fret -- and perform -- Manager Manny Acta relishes the contrast with his rookie season when he faced a multiple-choice test with no answers. "We do have that nice problem with our position players," Acta said. "In a year or so, I hope we have the same 'problem' with our starting rotation. Then we'll be ready to roll.
"It gives me more peace of mind to have so many choices. Around here now it's 'you snooze, you loose.' Guys can take your position in a heartbeat. Get a headache, take a couple of days off and you could get Wally Pipped," Acta said, referring to the Yankee who's famous for taking a day off and letting an unknown named Lou Gehrig play first base.
"Nobody's complacent. Every position except third base is contested," said pitcher Jason Bergmann. "Last year we were looking around trying to find people who could do the job. This spring it's about earning a job."
Acta is remarkably candid about several of the competitions. "Lo Duca is the main guy. Estrada came here knowing that. But there is an upside to the Johnny deal. He's much younger [31 to 35]. He could be the answer here for a year or two. But Flores is making it tough for us. Come on, he just looks like he belongs. He has a ton of fans in this organization."
As for the outfield, it's not as open as it looks. Austin Kearns in right field "lets me sleep at night," Acta said. "He's a leader by example, exactly the kind of player you want. Milledge? We went out and got him so that he can be here for years." Even in left field the Pe¿a Power and Light Company is probably secure because the Nats' brass wants to know if they stole a big-time slugger or just got a strikeout machine with a middling .787 career on-base-plus-slugging- percentage and defensive liabilities.