Wednesday, July 2, Noon ET

Washington Nationals

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Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Nationals beat writer Chico Harlan was online Wednesday, July 2 at noon ET to take your questions and comments about the Washington Nationals.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive.

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Chico Harlan: Hey folks. Greetings from Dolphins Stadium, where a cast of empty seats and little colorful squares of summer camp groups dot the stands. Collin Balester is probably wondering what happened to the big crowds of Cooper Stadium.

Anyway, let's chat. Might have to cut it short today, so apologies in advance.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a bit puzzled why the Nats called up Bernadina from AA Harrisburg. Isn't it a cardinal rule in baseball to avoid bringing up a promising prospect too soon? If he fails at the major league level during this call-up, it could prove to be a major setback in his career. It would be one thing if the Nats were in the middle of a pennant race and he, even though still raw, was considered the best available replacement in the organization for Milledge. But why take the risk now when it doesn't really matter?

Chico Harlan: First of all, the team felt like he was ready. Even before Milledge's injury, Dana Brown, the team's scouting director, had paid a visit to Harrisburg and determined that Bernadina was ready -- finally -- to hit in the majors. So far (granted, in just three games) that is looking highly dubious, but in fairness, it's too early to know yet.

But I disagree that any of this experience, even if it ends with a .087 average, will hinder Bernadina's development. This wasn't a premature promotion. The guy is 24 years old. He was batting .325 in Class AA -- which is where the organization stashes its best prospects.

Perhaps it's a cardinal rule for some teams to avoid bringing up prospects to learn on the job, but the Nats clearly have a different perspective. (See Dukes, Milledge, etc. ... even Pena.)

There's another, simpler reason why it made sense to promote Bernadina. The Nats needed a center fielder. They owe it to their roster -- and their fans -- to put the best pieces together; there was no sense in trying to survive 2-4 weeks with, say, Wille Harris playing CF.

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Collin Balester, Superstar: Chico, kind of scary how much better you can feel after five well-pitched innings by a real prospect. Even after their best efforts to blow that game, what was the attitude like regarding the kid's performance in the post-game clubhouse?

Chico Harlan: Enthusiastic. Veterans in the clubhouse were really impressed -- and these are people who wouldn't say so just if they weren't. They weren't just impressed with his stuff. They were also impressed with the approach he took on the mound. They saw lots of confidence, lots of self-assurance. If he was a quarterback from Texas, you might also say he had "moxie."

Anyway, he looked like he belonged. You don't throw full-count breaking balls to Hanley Ramirez unless you have confidence in your stuff.

I'd say first impressions were tremendous. He was the franchise's first pitcher to win his debut start since... Dan Smith. On June 8, 1999. If you're curious, Smith had six more wins in his career.

Balester will have more.

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Alexandria, Va.: Any updates on Ryan Wagner? You mentioned before that his rehab would likely start the first week of July. Any word on that?

Chico Harlan: Wagner is spending the week in Potomac, just to do a little more throwing. He is indeed on track to begin a rehab assignment -- probably a week from now or so. I'll keep you updated.

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Section 416, aka The Alps: We were at the game on Sunday - fab finish, but what frustrated us was the number of times the Nats' first hitter would get on base and instead of executing a sac bunt, the Nats hit into a double play. Acta finally had tried a sac bunt later in the game, but I'm curious as to why the aversion to the sacrifice play. Any ideas?

Chico Harlan: Acta is not a bunt guy -- especially early in games. Years of baseball experience, years of reading and years of discussion with others in the game have led him to believe that you shouldn't trade an out just to advance a runner to second or third. His opinion differs on this only when a pitcher is up or a game is close and late. The main reasoning? He believes that bunting diminishes the chances for a big inning, and I tend to agree. You don't play for one run when you have a chance to get three or four. There's a trade-off. Sometimes, the refusal to bunt actually makes the inning end lightning-fast -- as you saw Sunday with all those double plays. But if Acta gets a few big innings for every time his strategy backfires, he'll still come out ahead.

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Amazed: It appears that Manny and Elijah have actually forgiven and forgotten the dustup in the dugout. Since forgiving and forgetting is the most difficult thing for humans to do, can it be true?

Chico Harlan: Absolutely. Manny is a forgiving guy, and said he forgave Elijah from the moment their incident happened. Or at least from the moment of Elijah's apology. But no doubt, his batting average since helps smooth the wounds, too.

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Victory City: What was the clubhouse like on Sunday and Tuesday nights after the wins?

Chico Harlan: Sunday night, fairly giddy.

Tuesday night, relieved.

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Washington, D.C.: There's a lot of chatter that Lenny Harris should be fired, that he's the root of our offensive woes. I agree with a lot of the criticism of him, but how consequential can he be? I thought basically a hitting coach worked with guys on scouting reports of upcoming pitchers and helped them work through slumps with feedback and tips. But that veterans like Austin Kearns were free to just ignore what he says unless there's more of a mandate to change approach from the top. It's hard for me to believe that Lenny Harris unilaterally has the power to order every hitter to change their approach at the plate in a way that would cause a team-wide slump. Am I misunderstanding his role?

Chico Harlan: Harris doesn't deserve some from-the-pulpit defense, and that's not what I'm presenting here. But look, Harris can only coach the players the Nats have given him. A lineup like the one Washington has today -- Bernadina, Harris, Dukes, Boone, Belliard, Flores, Lo Duca, Lopez, Perez -- won't perform well most days. And that's true no matter who the hitting coach is. Plus, if we're going to blame Harris for the poor team batting average (and for the failings of Wily Mo Pena, etc.), then he needs at least a fraction of credit for the steps we've seen from Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge. Harris has worked very closely with those guys, and they're more likely to follow his advice than a veteran who already has his routine.

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Alexandria, Va.: With just about anybody up for grabs besides the youngsters, who (if anyone) do you expect to be moved by the trade deadline?

Chico Harlan: Paul Lo Duca and Felipe Lopez would be at the top of the list. They are certainly available. But you can't anticipate the Nationals would get much for them.

The untouchables -- it's a short list.

Dukes, Flores, Lannan, Zimmerman, Milledge and Balester.

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No bunting: That strategy works if you have a powerful lineup like the Red Sox. The Nationals' big innings are few and far between. They need to focus on grinding out a run here and there and hope to win low-scoring games. They can't compete in a slugfest.

Chico Harlan: They can and they must. When you have a bullpen like Washington's, you cannot simply try to win 3-2 ballgames. You saw it last night. The Nats scored nine runs, and needed every one of them. From the beginning, they played for big innings -- and in several cases, it worked.

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Left Field: Now that Kearns is coming back to right, Bernardina in center and Dukes in left, what will become of Wily Mo Pena? Is he showing signs of coming out of his slump?

Chico Harlan: None that I'm seeing. I think he'll be glued to the bench.

By the way, Nats go down 1-2-3 in the first against Florida pitcher Ricky Nolasco.

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Arlington, Va.: How worried should we be about the Nats medical/training staff? From Cordero to Johnson to Zimmerman to Kearns -- and these are just the high-profile guys -- it seems like injuries are either understated, not diagnosed, mis-diagnosed or under treated. Is the front office concerned and/or doing anything to address this?

Chico Harlan: I've gotten several questions along this line today, so I'll use this one as the representative. The rash of injuries raise a worthwhile question -- one certainly worth exploring in more depth for a future article. It should be noted (perhaps as coincidence, but perhaps not) that several of the players who've been injured this year -- Cordero, Belliard, Young -- came into spring training out of shape. You can't necessarily attribute some of the other injuries (those of Kearns, Zimmerman and Johnson) to lack of fitness, but it's still interesting. The guys who are the best athletes on the team, meanwhile, like Elijah Dukes, haven't had the same issues.

Certainly there's a link between overall body fitness and susceptibility to injury. My own thoughts: Compared to other sports, baseball lags way behind in its training. It's not just the actual conditioning, but the overall attention to healthy habits -- even the meals. None of that stuff is closely monitored.

At least they don't have beer in the clubhouse any longer.

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Re: Left Field: Why wouldn't Kearns go to left and Dukes stay in right? Dukes has shown he has a cannon arm.

Chico Harlan: Dukes is comfortable anywhere. His arm will be an asset even in left. The team still loves Kearns' defense, and sees him as the regular right fielder. With Kearns and Dukes on the corners, the Nats will have quite a solid defensive outfield -- no matter who is playing center.

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Arlington, Va.: Any truth to the rumor that if the Nationals ask you to throw out the first pitch at a game, you might also be playing left field and batting 7th?

Chico Harlan: No, that was Steve Yanda. They just couldn't come to terms on the money.

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Capitol Hill: Does Berandina look like a major leaguer?

Chico Harlan: His bat is looking iffy. And the question was always whether or not he'd be able to hit. He got a hit in his first at bat and has looked lost ever since. But his fielding hasn't been an issue, which at least counts for something. He's a great baserunner, too... but first he actually has to get on base.

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Arlington, Va.: Why a 12:10 start today? After last night's attendance of 12,166 (listed), how do the seats look today?

Chico Harlan: It's an early start just because it's "getaway" day. Series finales often start early to allow for teams to travel to their next cities. Washington leaves after the game for Cinci.

As for the stadium? Florida has clearly taken this chance to invite every Miami-Dade summer camper between ages 6-10 to their baseball game this afternoon. We'll get "Take me out to the ballgame" in high octaves today. The Fish were probably fearful of another dead-empty stadium like they had for that afternoon game last year between these two teams.

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Section 228 or the Roof Top Lounge: Halfway through, who's the biggest surprise or overperformer on the Nats? And flip side, who is the biggest underperformer (not counting those who can't perform at all due to injuries)?

Chico Harlan: Biggest surprise: I'll have to say Jesus Flores. I won't call him an overperformer, though, because that indicates that he'll drift back to some form of averageness. He's the real deal. Of course, if the team had anticipated his emergence, they wouldn't have signed Lo Duca and Estrada.

Underperformer: Wily Mo Pena.

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McLean, Va.: Any chance Belliard moves before the deadline?

Chico Harlan: Sure there's a chance. His recent power surge makes him a valuable asset. Of course, Washington must also decide how badly it wants Belliard. Once Zimmerman returns, does Belliard become quite expendable? Or does he finish out the season at second base? If the team can't find any substantial offers for Belliard, I think keeping his bat at the lineup (and using him at second) makes the team a bit stronger.

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John Kruk: Hey, we're not athletes, we're ballplayers. "At least there isn't beer in the clubhouse any longer??!!!" Chico, I don't know you any more.

Chico Harlan: John, you were always the man. I hate to feel like I let you down. No doubt you played during baseball's golden age, when veins were big and appetites were boozy. You had teammates nicknamed Dutch and Nails. But listen, John, times change. That guy you used to call Nails? He's starting an upscale lifestyle magazine aimed at high-earning athletes. It's all glossy.

But listen, if you want to join me for some brews, I'll gladly meet you. I want to hear some Mitch Williams stories.

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Re: Untouchables: How about Jon Raunch & Chad Cordero ?

Chico Harlan: Rauch cannot be an untouchable, even though I think trading him would further devastate the bullpen. His value to a contending team is such that Washington should at least be open to offers. But yeah, let me emphasize that he's an important piece of the future team.

Cordero I didn't even mention. Teams don't go shopping for players about to get major shoulder surgery.

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PTBNL, Parts Unknown: When the Senators visit the BaySox in July, please suggest to Emilio to have either you, Carig, an intern or another reporter cover it? It seems with the number of prospects at Harrisburg and at least three of the top Os prospects at Bowie, it'd be an interesting look at the future of both clubs.

Chico Harlan: I like the suggestion. I'm a sucker for minor league ball, too.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Chico! Don't you think that Dimitri Young is just about the least mobile first baseman you've ever seen? We've been to two games in the past few weeks and he's committed an error in both of them. My husband and I agreed that he'd be much better off in the American League where he could be a designated hitter full time. Your thoughts?

Chico Harlan: Well yeah, he'd be better of in the American League. His fielding can be termed, most politely, as adventurous. Even slow rollers sometimes look like 50-50 propositions. But right now, Washington needs his bat. So his value (in leadership and batting average) compensates for his defensive shortcomings. But no team wants Dmitri Young as its first baseman for defensive reasons; that's why Nick Johnson, if he can successfully recover, will be back at the position next year.

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O's Exec: Hey Chico, any thoughts on Ronnie's spit, stare at Sherrill, and walk half way to firstbase after hitting the walk-off on Sunday?

Did he do the same thing after his homerun last night too?

You stay classy, Ronnie.

Chico Harlan: Yeah, not a fan. If that's part of his home run routine -- and apparently, it is -- he's certainly taken it down from the Sosa-esque art form. I meant to ask Belliard about it last night, but he wasn't around in the clubhouse post-game. Answers later. I'm curious to hear his reasoning.

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Holy Cow!: LoDuca drives in 2!!! I assume the Post will put out an EXTRA EXTRA special afternoon edition to commemorate this rare and unexpected event.

I would take a ham sandwich for him right now, today's 2 RBIs notwithstanding.

Chico Harlan: That's your scoring update. (With feeling!)

Nats 2, Fish 0

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Should Be Working: Words can't describe the joy I felt watching Ronnie Belliard's homer settle into the stands making all those Oriole lovers morph from an orange dancing frenzy into a long-faced funk. It was made much better knowing most of the orange folks were Washington area fans that supported the orioles and delayed baseball's return by many years. Go Nats!

Chico Harlan: I'll let your joy be the final question... err, comment, for this afternoon's session. Sorry to make this a truncated chat, but I need to start paying full attention to this game. Thanks for sharing the lunch hour with me, folks. You made it enjoyable.

John Kruk -- no hard feelings, I hope.

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"I'm a sucker for minor league ball": Of course you are, you grew up in Pittsburgh.

Chico Harlan: OK, THAT is the final word.

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