Team Makes Hernández Feel at Home

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 20 -- From the moment he arrived Wednesday in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, Anderson Hernández, the new guy, felt like a familiar face.

A couple of teammates who knew Hernández from winters together in the Dominican Republic -- Ronnie Belliard, Emilio Bonifacio -- formed around Hernández's locker and told jokes. Cristian Guzmán offered him half of a foil-wrapped cheese steak sandwich. After almost an hour of laughter, Hernández, acquired from the Mets for reliever Luis Ayala, already thought he fit in.

"It's different when you come to a team and don't know anybody," he said. "But I feel good here."

Gauging Hernández's fit in the infield, though, will require more time. His limitations as a hitter make him, at best, a backup. During fragments of three seasons in New York, he batted .138 in 87 at-bats. When Washington acquired him, he was sporting a .203 average with Class AAA New Orleans.

But Hernández, in a matter of days, went from the minors to the waiver wire to the Nationals' lineup. For Wednesday's game, he batted eighth, starting at shortstop.

Still, his long-term role will solidify only when Washington's other middle infielders regain their health. Guzmán, nursing a left thumb injury, likely will return to the lineup today, Manager Manny Acta said. And when Alberto González, another defense-first shortstop acquired this season in a trade, recovers from his left hamstring strain, Hernández will be competing for spot playing time, too.

If nothing else, Hernández, 25, provides short-term relief. Though the Mets used him often at second, he's a natural shortstop, which is more than Washington can say for other players -- Belliard and Pete Orr -- used at the position in the last week.

In his first game, Hernández provided a photo negative of his reputation. Known for his defense, he committed a throwing error while trying to turn a double play, and the mistake led to an unearned run. But at the plate, Hernández went 3 for 4, all singles.

Casto to Columbus

Kory Casto wasn't hitting well enough to be an everyday first baseman with the Nationals. Rather than use him sparingly, the Nationals demoted him to AAA Columbus on Tuesday. "The offense wasn't there," Acta said of Casto, who is hitting .193. "We feel that for us to have him sitting here on the bench, we'd rather send him down there."

With Casto gone, the Nationals have one less option at first base, but that was also part of the plan. Now, Belliard, the team's leader in slugging percentage, will again become an everyday player, receiving the bulk of at-bats at first base.

The team plans to bring Casto back up in September when rosters expand.

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