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Wednesday, March 12 at 1 p.m. ET

Washington Nationals Spring Training

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The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga outlines the major storylines and position battles in spring training for the Washington Nationals. Video: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.comPhotos: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

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Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 12, 2008; 1:00 PM

Live from Florida, Washington Post writer Barry Svrluga was online Wednesday, March 12 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments about how the Nats look this spring, the new stadium and what to expect from the team this season.

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A transcript follows.

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Barry Svrluga: Greetings from Dodgertown, folks. Lots to talk about as we get ready for Chad Billingsley vs. Mike O'Connor. This is the Nationals' last-ever appearance at Dodgertown, so there's a bit of nostalgia in the air.

Anyone notice what Joel Hanrahan did last night? My goodness, the buzz of the clubhouse.

Let's chat.

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Capitol Hill: I was slightly stunned to read that Dmitri Young showed up at camp weighing just under 300 pounds. Given (a) his new contract, (b)his 2007 promise to be in shape for spring training and (c) his diabetes, how disappointed is management? And at that weight, can Young do anything to help the Nats other than pinch hit and make sure nobody steals the bench from the dugout?

Barry Svrluga: This is a central point in this spring training camp. The club, and Young, say that they are having a tough time getting a handle on his diabetes, and that has contributed to his inability to lose weight. He admits, though, that he did not pick up a bat in the offseason.

Young is adamant that, because he is a veteran, he knows how to prepare himself. I think the Nationals would be much more disappointed in Young if Nick Johnson didn't look healthy. Young, who will likely play in a Grapefruit League game over the weekend, vows to lose weight by Opening Night and be ready to go. That's only 2-1/2 weeks away. We'll see how it goes.

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Arlington, Va.: It appears that Nick Johnson will be the starter at first base. Do you agree? How about second? Do you think Belliard or will Lopez will get the nod.

Barry Svrluga: Following up the last question, I'd go with Johnson, with very little doubt, at this point.

The other question is more difficult. Lopez hasn't been tremendous offensively this spring, but he is playing hard. He drilled a ball to the left-center gap last night against the Braves and absolutely motored around the bases, trying to stretch a double into a triple. Only a perfect play by the Braves got him out. He seems more at ease and more focused.

That said, Belliard is a total pro, and he's swinging the bat really well. One school of thought is that they'll have to start Lopez, because if they don't, they risk losing him mentally. Belliard can handle being assigned to the bench. But again, this one needs to play itself out.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: If the Yankees can sign Billy Crystal, could the Nationals, say, sign Madonna for a game? She supposedly can hit some too, from her baseball movie, and she would certainly be a draw. Of course, when will this all stop? Paris Hilton playing shortstop for the Cubs?

Barry Svrluga: Nats are in serious discussions with the agent for Don Rickles, I am told by sources. Not sure what other teams are in pursuit, but will work on it over the course of the day.

(Guzman pops to short to start this one.)

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Washington, D.C.: I have noticed that Lastings Milledge has had a very strong spring and seems to be picking up multiple hit games. Is it not out of the question for Milledge to possibly lead off for the Nats in '08? Also, just speak about what you think his progress has been like and the possibilities for him this year

Barry Svrluga: I have been very impressed with Milledge. He hits the ball hard, has a good plan in batting practice (going the other way) and has some speed (though he needs to be careful about when and where to steal bases).

(Belliard flies to left.)

As for leading off, I do not believe that is in the plans. Milledge looks set to bat second, with, for right now, Guzman leading off. Milledge in the two-hole might give Ryan Zimmerman more RBI opportunities than he had last year.

(Milledge at the plate right now, by the way.)

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Fairfax, Va.: How concerned should Nats fans be that Ryan Zimmerman has not agreed to a long-term deal? It seems like there was this implicit assumption that Zimmerman was going to be the Nats' Cal Ripken in that he would be the face of the franchise and play his entire career in D.C. But is Zimmerman holding out until he sees the team contend or something? Is the front office concerned about his health in the long-term?

Barry Svrluga: (Milledge goes down swinging.)

This is a tough question to answer. Would it be nice -- for both the club and for Zimmerman -- to have him locked up now? Absolutely. But is it absolutely necessary? No, considering that regardless of what happens, he is Nationals' property through 2011.

My contention has long been, however, that Zimmerman's case is a bit different. He is clearly the one player the Nats can build around. They are trying to solidify their place in a market that is still getting a feel for baseball. The prices for players, too, doesn't appear to be going down anytime soon.

This is an important situation to watch over the next year-18 months, because by that point Zimmerman will be in the arbitration system and will get a significant raise whether he signs a long-term deal or not. If he produces this season -- even something like a .290/25 HR/100 RBI season, which wouldn't shock a lot of people -- he will get paid upward of $4 million, and would get significant raises through arbitration the next two years.

Will the Lerners be comfortable signing a player to a deal that could include somewhere between $55-$65 million in guaranteed money? We'll have to see. But I wouldn't freak out yet.

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NOVA: Any good trade gossip?

Barry Svrluga: The consensus is the Nationals will be in good position to trade a middle infielder, particularly if Bret Boone continues playing this well. The problem is that their most tradable commodity in that regard is likely their best player up the middle, Belliard. He makes just $1.6 million this year and $1.9 million next season. Guzman ($4.2 million) and Lopez ($4.9 million) are both free agents at the end of the season -- so they're more expensive, the club has control of them for less time, and they might not be as productive.

One other bit of buzz: The Nats have definitely expressed interest in Jeff Weaver, the free agent right-hander. But, from what I'm told, there are divergent opinions on the guy within the Nats management structure. Some think he's worth taking a chance on, others think he might be a bad person to have in a clubhouse that might be delicate anyway.

If they do sign Weaver, you can be sure of one thing: It'll be for a discount price. And Scott Boras, Weaver's agent, doesn't often give discounts.

(O'Connor: Walks Pierre, stolen base, and then as Pierre steals third, he walks Furcal.)

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Arlington, Va.: Where can I find information about the game-day tickets being held for the home opener? Will they sell these online or at the park?

Barry Svrluga: The club will certainly make an announcement about the remaining Opening Day tickets. The background: They sold season-ticket packages (somewhere between 17,000-18,000), then released 4,000 tickets for Opening Night to be sold individually, but because they're still trying to sell season ticket packages that include the opener, they're holding the rest of them.

I'm sure we'll hear something soon, and I'll pass it on in Nationals Journal and in the $.35/$50-edition.

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Re: Milledge: Can you let us know how is his fielding? I have no idea. Thanks.

Barry Svrluga: Haven't been as impressed, but it's a small sample size. I'll let you know more when I get a better feel. He can run, but I'm not sure he always takes the best routes to the ball.

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Barry Svrluga: O'Connor: Quite shaky. He just allowed a run on a wild pitch, and he has three stolen bases against him. No outs, one run in, man on third, James Loney at the plate.

(Oh, but Loney just struck out looking at a breaking ball.)

(This is, by the way, the definition of multi-tasking.)

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Northern Virginia: Any word on Slick Nick's new lightning bolt hairdo? Is it a go?

Barry Svrluga: Somehow I haven't been able to check in with Nick about that yet. It was the clear winner in an online poll at Nationals Journal the other day, and Austin Kearns claims he'll do it. I'll let you know in the Journal ASAP. (Nick's not on the trip today, so I'd guess I'll check with him tomorrow.)

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Lopez, Fla.: Seems as if there is some tension between Orioles ownership and the Nats, but it also appears that the O's could use a veteran short stop, while the Nats have a surplus there. Any chance the two clubs could help each other out?

Barry Svrluga: Yeah that will be interesting to watch. Also worth watching: The Nats' second basemen if and when the Orioles trade Brian Roberts.

O'Connor finally gets out of the first striking out Jason Repko. After one, Dodgers 2, Nationals 0.

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Washington, D.C.: How do other teams view the Nats re-building strategy of taking in misfits from around the league? Do they respect the moves being made by "second-chance" Jim Bowden, or do they see it as a high-risk gambit by a team unwilling to spend what it takes to be a legitimate contender?

Barry Svrluga: A little of both, I think. Scouts I've talked to in the last week definitely believe the Nats have more pop and potential this year -- but you don't have to be a scout to know that.

I would be careful, though, about lumping someone like Milledge in with someone like Dukes. One has basically been immature -- and cutting that sexist rap song was ill-advised, no doubt. The other, though, has a serious criminal history. I've seen a lot of people kind of lump all the Nats' misfits together, and I don't think that's fair to any of them.

One thing that's consistent with the Nats' moves on these guys: They are almost all no- or low-risk. Dukes cost a Class A pitcher, though a talented one. Milledge drew raves during his entire career and is a clear talent, and Schneider and Church were unlikely to be a part of an actual winning team in D.C. Dmitri Young came in on a minor league contract. Etc.

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Penn Quarter: Barry,

How likely is it that the Nats pick up another starter, especially with the health of Hill in doubt? You mentioned Weaver, but have you heard any other names discussed? Kyle Lohse? John Thomson? Rodrigo Lopez?

Also, have any young hitters, minor league guys, particularly impressed you at spring training?

Thanks as always for the field work.

Barry Svrluga: There could always be a trade for a pitcher, and there is, even, Ramon Ortiz out there. But for now, the only name I've heard is Weaver. Lohse, it would still seem even at this late date, is going to get more in years and dollars than the Nats would be willing to spend.

Manny Acta was asked before today's game if he was okay with the starters he has, and he said he was. They feel they've got seven guys -- Hill, Patterson, Bergmann, Chico, Lannan, Redding, Perez -- that are good enough to give them a usable rotation, even if only five are healthy.

That said, there has to be a time in this club's future when they will be willing to spend what it takes to get quality players in here. Right now, the quality of those pitchers -- even Lohse -- doesn't match the asking price. And the fact that they're not signed (Weaver and Lohse, for instance) means that the Nats aren't the only ones thinking that way. All of baseball is thinking that way.

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Fairfax, Va.:"Will the Lerners be comfortable signing a player to a deal that could include somewhere between $55-$65 million in guaranteed money?" ... Why does this question even need to be asked? The Lerners purchased a major league baseball team. The prices for good players are high, and their contracts don't tend to turn over year after year. I can definitely see waiting on signing Zimmerman long-term, but this team is already flush with money and will be more so in a very short time. Some fans are convinced the Lerners are "cheap." I don't buy that, but why is there a question that they would fret about guaranteed money to important players? Maybe they're not sold on Zimmerman yet, but at some point they will be giving out $55-65M on someone. They almost have to, as MLB owners.

Barry Svrluga: This is an excellent point. Whether it's Zimmerman or the next would-be stud, the Lerners will have to spend that much money on someone at some point. Zimmerman is a special case because he's not a free agent they're trying to lure. He's a guy who's here, who they're putting out there as a draw (take a look at who was on the ad on the front of The Post sports section the day single-game tickets went on sale), and as someone who does good work in the community.

Again, there's plenty of time to get a deal worked out with him. It'll just be interesting to see how it all goes down.

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Section 114, Row E: Bar,

Not trying to kick you out the door -- but do you have an update regarding the incoming Nats Beat Writer?

Barry Svrluga: Hey man, just getting comfortable here. Come on.

Thanks for your concern, though. Yes, I think we're headed in a good direction in that regard, but nothing's official yet. I hate to be coy, but you'll have me to kick around for the next little while at least. I'll get you an official update when I have it.

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Section 114, Row E: Barry! I've read the rumors that the Nats are interested in Jeff Weaver? Please tell me that Bowden fell off his pimped out Segway and bumped his head. This cannot be true - this is not part of the "plan."

Barry Svrluga: That's what some people are saying, even in the organization. But the way this would work as part of The Plan is if he came in for very little money.

In discussing these guys a couple of weeks ago, Jim Bowden had some interesting things to say. He said you might not want to sign another free agent because you don't want to get in the way of a young guy developing. But the flip side is: You might not want to rush a young guy, so you go and sign a free agent or two. The Nats' feelings about guys like Lannan and Chico play into all this.

But again, most important: The price.

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Rockville, Md..: Regardless of the outfield issues of Milledge running down pop ups, he has to be better than Nook! Where is Nook by the way?

Barry Svrluga: Funny you ask. Nook Logan is in the Dodgers' minor league camp, which is an odd place to be considering this team has Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre. Not a lot of takers for the Nookster this offseason.

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Opening Day Pitcher: It it too late to trade for Livo?

Barry Svrluga: Have you seen Livan Hernandez's spring stats thus far for the Twins? That would be 3 starts, 9 IP, 8 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 2 HR.

I love Livo. But I think he may be done.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Barry,

Considering the surplus of highly paid middle infielders that the Nats have, are they really considering keeping Brett Boone with the team, or is this an audition opportunity so that he can be traded for a prospect?

Also, how is Alex Escobar looking and do you feel that he has a chance to be squeezed onto the 25-man?

Barry Svrluga: Boone: If not trading him, then trading one of the others and using him as insurance. I can assure you of one thing, though, and that's that Boone will not be going to the minors. He still considers himself a major league player even after almost two years off.

Escobar: I was just thinking this morning about how I haven't written about him this spring. He looks in excellent physical condition, though he always does. He can still hit the ball hard. But I feel nervous even writing all that about him, because he could break down in the next five minutes.

I'll let you know if that happens.

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Barry Svrluga: Game update: Nats don't yet have a hit against Billingsley through their first two at-bats, though Escobar did walk and Aaron Boone was hit by a pitch.

O'Connor seems to have settled down here in the second, getting the first two guys to ground out. Oh, and DeJesus just grounded out to end the inning on a 3-2 curveball.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Not to look too far ahead, but who is most likely to play the Nats in the World Series?

Barry Svrluga: A fascinating question. Let me offer you this.

Detroit Tigers lineup:

Curtis Granderson

Placido Polanco

Gary Sheffield

Magglio Ordonez

Miguel Cabrera

Carlos Guillen

Edgar Renteria

Pudge Rodriguez

Marcus Thames/Jacques Jones

Detroit Tigers rotation:

Justin Verlander

Jeremy Bonderman

Nate Robertson

Kenny Rogers

Dontrelle Willis

I'm not sayin'. I'm just sayin'.

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Washington, D.C.: Okay, I'll ask the obligatory stadium question. Who will get the moniker "Official Beer of the Nationals?"

Barry Svrluga: Whichever one I'm drinkin' in Section 219 when I get off the beat.

(Truthfully, they have contracts with both Anheuser-Busch and Miller, and they'll have microbrews as well. Getting a beer at Nationals Park, as I understand it, is not going to be a problem.)

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Anchorage, Alaska: Hey there Barry...

From the perspective of a casual observer, it seems like at least a couple of the storylines that have hung over this year's camp are starting to gel: Guzman has picked up right where he left off last summer after injuring his thumb, and Belliard seems to be having a good spring, too... while Lopez... who seems better than last year, isn't really setting the world afire (though I suppose there might have been an attempt to manage some people's perceptions yesterday by trying to stretch the double into a triple... If he makes it his stock goes up, but of course, he was thrown out at third). And over at first, the New, Improved, More Fuel-Efficient Nick Johnson seems to have answered at least most of the questions, while Dmitri struggles with his health.

Is the situation as basic and as cut-and-dried as that, or is there more to it?

Barry Svrluga: Yeah, I think that's the crux of it. But with the middle infield situation, I think there's still plenty of time to get some more clarity. At first base, I think Young is in a deep hole and would have to really turn it around in the next two weeks to be considered a starting candidate.

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Wilmington, N.C.: With question marks still on Lo Duca and Estrada and the Nats wanting Flores to start in the minors for some seasoning, who do you think would be a better fit for back-up catcher: Wil Nieves or Humberto Cota?

Barry Svrluga: Funny this just popped in. Cota just singled through the hole in left.

Thus far, I have liked Nieves. He's a good catch-and-throw guy, knows what it means to be a backup, has a good demeanor, etc. Others around here, though, like Cota a bit better. (Interesting that the guy the Nats cut loose the other day, Chad Moeller, immediately caught on with the Yankees.)

Lo Duca is on target to play over the weekend. Estrada, though he has been playing catch, is further away. This will be another theme to watch over the next two weeks. If Flores is on the major league club, it will not be as a true backup.

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Washington, D.C.: Headed down to spring training on Friday to follow the Nats for a week. Any recommendations of what to do/eat/drink around the Space Coast before/after Monday's game?

Barry Svrluga: I'm going to do a Nats Journal post about this in the very near future because I get the feeling lots of DC-types are coming down this weekend. I will reveal here, however, a new place I found (Boz and I had a lovely meal there a couple weeks ago) called The Fat Snook. It's on Route A1A in Cocoa Beach, just a small place with very good fish. I had duck one night, too. Solid.

Check out the Journal -- probably tomorrow morning -- for a more complete guide.

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Burke, Va.: The Nat's recent acquisitions are "low-risk"? That's a kind way of putting it. Another way to put it would be "players no one else wants."

Have you been taking lessons in Jimbo-speak?

Barry Svrluga: Also a way to look at it. But I guess the reason I say that is I've seen Dukes hit in person, seen Milledge play in person, and watched that -- let's be honest -- pathetic offense from a year ago (fewest runs in baseball). There's just so much more pop around this year, I get why they made the moves they did.

Jimbo-speak, though, has a way of washing over you.

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Re: Beer: So how much is one of these supposed beers going to run me?

Barry Svrluga: Somewhere between $6-$20, I suppose.

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Anonymous: I thought Patterson looked outstanding last night. How's he feeling today?

Barry Svrluga: Didn't talk to John this morning when I swung by Space Coast Stadium. I'd be cautious about what you saw in that performance, though. His fastball is not yet up to where he wants it, though he threw a couple nice curveballs for strikes. The club, and Patterson, are trying not to obsess about his velocity, saying it will come as he gains arm strength. The key, if that's the case, is that Patterson learn to pitch without his best stuff for maybe a month or so. He did not do that at all last year early in the season. It would be a huge step for his maturity if he, in facts, pitches and wins with a fastball that's 88 mph early in the season. Then, if and when it returned to 92 mph as he built arm strength, he'd be that much more confident.

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Washington, D.C.: Barry,

Patterson looked pretty bad last night -- which you hinted at in your article today. What is the deal with this guy? A couple weeks ago he says that he has his fastball back; clearly he doesn't and now he says he "needs time." Why do we keep giving this guy the benefit of the doubt?

Barry Svrluga: And here, then, is the opposite view.

I do feel strange -- given how much I harped on Patterson's velocity last year -- allowing him to say he still needs to build arm strength. But there are other pitchers here doing the same. (Joel Hanrahan, by the way, does not appear to be one of them.) Patterson is, indeed, his own creature. I think the reason he is given slack is that this team, as currently constructed, needs him. There is still hope that he can recapture the form of 2005, when he was pretty darn good.

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Don't let me down, Dodgertown: Barry,

did you mean the last trip to Vero as "Dodgertown," since I was under the impression Dem O's were moving to Vero next year?

Barry Svrluga: Yeah, I meant to say that. The Orioles are rumored to be moving here, though that's not done by any stretch. Currently, there is no tenant for the facility at Vero Beach next spring.

That would be horrible for the Nationals, considering this is the shortest trip for them all spring (about 45 minutes door-to-door).

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Blacksburg, Va.: Whose the first to make it to the big leagues this season, Mock, Balester, Detwiler?

Barry Svrluga: Great question. I go with Balester. I was impressed with Mock's stuff, but I think Balester is just a hair more polished. Balester pitched at Class AAA last year; Mock has never been above Class AA.

Detwiler likely needs to pitch a full season in the minors, though a September call-up is probable.

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Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: With as injury prone as the Nats' starting pitchers are, why would they even begin to consider throwing two of them on short rest in cold weather in the opening week of the season?

Barry Svrluga: The key to that potential plan -- and I wrote about it in the paper this morning -- is WHO would be chosen to come back on short rest. It certainly wouldn't be Patterson. My guess is it'd be someone like Bergmann and Redding, who are both fairly resilient.

That is, by the way, just one option. I think it happens to be the leader in the clubhouse, but there's lots of time between now and then.

(The plan, by the way, is to use two off days the Nats have early in the season to just bring four starters north, have two of them go once on short rest, and feather Shawn Hill into the rotation on April 13. We'll see.)

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Manassas, Va.: Nobody wanted these guys at one time.

David Ortiz

Carlos Pena

Johan Santana

Sometimes it pays not to be wanted.

Anyway a query --

Have you talked to Manny about his approach to the game regarding strategy? He seems to have imbibed the anti-bunt/steal philosophy of the sabermetric gurus. (That's a good thing, by the way.)

Barry Svrluga: Yes, have talked much to him about this, and last week he lent me a copy of the book "Mind Games" by the Baseball Prospectus staff on the 2004 Red Sox. It's a fascinating combination of stats-stuff and anecdotes, and he loves it. He simply will not bunt in early innings, and he wants guys to have a 70 percent success rate on steals in order to keep the "green light." He also does not believe that any team has ever won a game because its manager got ejected, etc.

I think all this is worthy of a story soon. It got a little overlooked during the personality pieces I wrote on Acta last spring, when we were introducing him to the fan base.

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Rockville, Md..: Barry,

You are going to cover the Redskins so you can spend more time with your family?! Have you seen how much La Canfora has worked this offseason? I worry you are making a bad decision. Why don't you give me season tickets to both teams and some Sam Adams so we can talk about your decision?

Barry Svrluga: Oh, there's no doubt, the 'Skins beat is demanding, a whole different animal. I don't envy Mr. La Canfora's last several months.

The one difference: Even as you're working yourself in oblivion, you're sleeping in your own bed. If you're going to go insane, you might as well be familiar with the pillow.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: Who do you see Manny using at the main set up guys in the bullpen for the 7th and 8th innings before they give the ball to Cordero?

Barry Svrluga: Um, let me introduce you to Jon Rauch -- who has led the majors in appearances the past two years -- Luis Ayala and Saul Rivera.

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Stathead, Ore.: Barry:

Manny Acta like to cite stats for the reason he doesn't bunt or steal bases.

If that's the case, why would he consider batting Guzman and his terrible OBP leadoff?

Does he have any thoughts on the Cardinals' and Brewers' plans to bat the pitcher 8th and their feeling that it would lead to more runs being scored over the course of a season?

Barry Svrluga: Good question on Guzman. This is, simply, what the Nationals have right now, and it's far from ideal. But Acta is hopeful that Guzman's solid play from last year -- in which he had a .380 OBP in 46 games -- can carry over. He definitely reserves the right to mix it up if Guzman starts slowly (and he hasn't even named Guzman the leadoff guy officially yet).

I haven't asked him about the pitcher hitting eighth.

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Blacksburg, Va.: Dukes has been hitting pretty well this spring even though he has been cold his past couple of games. He's also behaved as well as anyone could have hoped, even showing a lighter side in the Post's golf video. If he can continue to mature and hit to his potential this season and someone else struggles is there a good chance of him stealing a job from Kearns or Pena?

Barry Svrluga: I will say this about Dukes: He plays hard. I mean, HARD. And he's been fine in casual conversation, etc. So far, so good.

_______________________

Barry Svrluga: Folks, can't get to all the questions today, but thanks for starting off the spring nicely. We'll go every Wednesday from now through the season. Should be fun.

O'Connor settled down in the second and third, and actually hasn't allowed a hit. Still Dodgers 2, Nationals 0 going to the fourth.

Have a great week, and if you're headed down here for the weekend, check out Nationals Journal for some restaurant information.

_______________________

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