Nationals Have Logjam Up the Middle

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

LAKELAND, Fla., March 18 -- Barring a trade -- and with General Manager Jim Bowden at the controls, that never is a good idea -- the Washington Nationals have three players for two positions in the middle infield. Two of those players -- would-be second basemen Ronnie Belliard and Felipe López -- have vastly different opinions about how they would handle losing the starting job.

"Bench?" López said Tuesday following a 9-1 thumping of the Detroit Tigers. "No. I already said that. No. Hell, no."

Belliard, speaking diagonally across the same cramped locker room from López, countered with: "I'm not going to get upset. Whatever they decide is good with me."

As the March 30 opener approaches, however, the Nationals say they have not decided how the middle infield will work out. Cristian Guzmán is slated to be the starter at shortstop, though López can play the position -- and he moved there early last season when Guzmán went down with a hamstring injury. That allowed Belliard to come off the bench, play second base and do what he does best -- hit. He did that well enough -- .290 with 58 RBI in 147 games -- that the Nationals signed him to a two-year, $3.5 million extension last July.

When speaking, Belliard has been diplomatic about the situation. "It's not on me," he said Tuesday. "It's on them." His play has been more forceful.

Tuesday, Guzmán started at short with López at second. In the sixth, after Guzmán went 1 for 3, Belliard came off the bench as a pinch hitter and immediately sent a pitch from Detroit left-hander Tim Byrdak on a line over the left field wall, his third homer of the spring. He went 1 for 3, dropping his average to .459. Afterward, in a 15-second span, Manager Manny Acta called Belliard's spring "outstanding" and "tremendous."

"I really don't care about spring training," Belliard said. "I've seen a lot of guys get hot in spring training and start the year slow. Sometimes, I told the guys: 'I don't want to hit no more. I don't want to get no more hits. I want to save them for the season.' "

It is to the point where Belliard's teammates have come to expect him to have among the best at-bats on the team. Some have even dubbed him "Mini-Manny," after Boston's Manny Ramírez, one of those hitters who, as players say, can get out of bed and get a hit.

"He's a guy that it doesn't matter who's on the mound, whether it's a no-name or one of the best guys in the league," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "He's going to give you a good at-bat."

The same could not always be said for López. Acta has praised López's attitude this spring, one that López entered knowing he would need to rebound after he hit .245 with a .308 on-base percentage in 2007.

López also has admitted that he lacked proper focus last season, but insists he has it now.

An all-star with Cincinnati in 2005, López is only 27 and on the brink of becoming a free agent at the end of the season. He will make $4.9 million this season, and given that he and the Nationals believe he has significant talent, he made it clear Tuesday he has no intention of backing up both Guzmán and Belliard.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company