Nats Still Don't Know Opening Day Pitcher

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 11 -- With no fans in the stands and half his teammates preparing for a road trip, Shawn Hill played catch with an athletic trainer early Tuesday afternoon in right field at Space Coast Stadium, two sets of 25 nice, easy tosses. The Washington Nationals right-hander said he considered the experience a "positive sign" as he tries to overcome mysterious pain in his right forearm, and the club plans for him to throw again on Thursday.

Hill, though, is realistic: Opening Night is two weeks from Sunday. Given Hill's current condition -- with no definite plans to throw from a mound and thus build up arm strength -- the Nationals head into their final 17 exhibition games giving no public indications as to who will throw the first pitch at Nationals Park.

"To be honest, I don't know that I'll be ready, even if I crank it up from today full speed," Hill said Tuesday. "I don't know that I would even be able to get there. . . . It would be an honor. But at the same time, if I can get back and . . . if I can make 30-some odd starts, I'll be more than happy. I can live without that opener."

Hill's forearm is not the only blip the Nationals are taking into consideration as they try to form a five-man rotation over the next two weeks. They are dealing with Odalis P┬┐rez's visa issues, John Patterson's arm strength, Matt Chico's mechanics, John Lannan's inexperience and a bit of inconsistency from both Jason Bergmann and Tim Redding.

Plus, the Nationals could still pursue another pitcher. Jeff Weaver, who won the clinching game of the 2006 World Series for St. Louis but struggled to a 6.20 ERA in 27 starts for Seattle last season, is still a free agent. His younger brother, Jered, is a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, and he told the Los Angeles Times that the Cardinals and Nationals have been in touch with Weaver.

Washington General Manager Jim Bowden declined to comment Tuesday night on the club's potential interest in Weaver. It is all but certain, however, that the club would offer Weaver no more than a one-year deal, one that might not be guaranteed.

"There's a lot of questions left to be answered in the next couple of weeks," Bowden said. "We have more choices. . . . We're not there yet."

Even if the Nationals landed Weaver, it's doubtful he would be in shape by the opener. So, as Manager Manny Acta said recently, "We have Plan B's." Acta, Bowden and pitching coach Randy St. Claire are working through several contingencies.

One possibility under consideration is to bring only four starters to Washington for Opening Night. The Nationals have a day off scheduled after playing two games, then play six straight. It's possible, then, that the club could ask the third starter to pitch April 2 in Philadelphia, then come back on three days' rest to pitch April 6 in St. Louis. The fourth starter, too, would have to pitch on short rest -- April 3 in Philadelphia and then April 7 at home against Florida.

If the Nationals choose that route, Hill wouldn't be needed until April 13 against Atlanta at Nationals Park.

"I think probably four starters and seven relievers is how we start," Bowden said. "But it's always something that could change."

Even if that's the choice, it still leaves the question of who throws the first pitch at the new park March 30 against the Braves. Patterson was the Opening Day starter in 2007, an experience for which, in retrospect, he wasn't ready. He allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings in a loss to Florida, the first of just seven starts he made in a season cut short by injuries.

But Patterson -- who threw three scoreless innings, allowed three singles, walked none and struck out three Tuesday night against the Braves at Disney's Wide World of Sports -- has professed his health all spring, and club officials have said he has met every mark. Asked if Patterson would be a candidate to start the opener, Acta said, "I don't see why not."

But there is another wrinkle. If Patterson is to start the opener, he must make one of his remaining three spring starts on short rest. Patterson is, as much as anything, a pitcher who prefers a routine. Still, Acta said there is plenty of time to handle Patterson carefully -- if, indeed, he is the choice for the opener.

"That's why we're not doing it right now, panicking -- 'Oh, Shawn's not ready, maybe we should move [Patterson] right now,' " Acta said. "No. He's coming off an injury, so we're going to wait up until the end of camp, see where Hill is, see where Patterson is -- which is still two weeks to go. And then if we have to make a move, we'll make it."

Patterson's start Tuesday night was more impressive on paper than it was in person. His fastball hovered mostly between 85 and 87 mph, and he needed 60 pitches to survive three innings. Patterson, though, had a sharp breaking ball, and said he isn't concerned with his velocity because he still needs to build arm strength.

"If I was obsessing about it, I'd have stood out there and tried to throw it through the wall," he said.

Patterson knows, too, all the questions about who will throw the opener. He said it's "an important day for the city of Washington." But with more than two weeks left, he's not obsessed with that, either.

"Right now, nobody knows who it is," Patterson said. "We're all trying to earn that spot. They're not just going to give it to somebody."

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