Nats Pleased With Backup Plan

If Redding's Spasms Continue, Acta Likes His Pitching Options

Right-hander Tim Redding thinks he can build on a strong spring despite back spasms.
Right-hander Tim Redding thinks he can build on a strong spring despite back spasms. (By Paul Sancya -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008; Page E06

JUPITER, Fla., March 23 -- Tim Redding had been perfect through three innings Sunday afternoon, so when he felt a twinge in his back while warming up for the fourth, he paid it no mind. This spring has gone too well, and his season with the Washington Nationals is too promising, to let a little pain get him off the mound.

But six batters later, Redding was doubled over in the center of the diamond, and Manager Manny Acta was among those on the field tending to him. The diagnosis afterward -- spasms in the middle of his back -- was not nearly as bad as it initially looked. Redding vowed afterward that he would make his final start of the spring and be ready to pitch the third game of the season, as he is slated to.

Had such a situation occurred last spring, Acta could have been forgiven for throwing his hands skyward and asking, "Why me?," because the options from which to choose a replacement fell somewhere between lackluster and undesirable. But if and when the Nationals have injured pitchers this year -- and right-hander Shawn Hill will start the year on the disabled list -- they can reach to a rotation at Class AAA Columbus that will be armed with homegrown pitchers, most of them true prospects, who are expected to be part of the major league rotation in the next few years.

"It's a big difference," Acta said. "If this would have happened last year this late, we really would have been scrambling just to get a guy."

Sunday, the scrambling took all of five minutes, a meeting between Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Redding is scheduled to pitch Friday, a day off for the club when they will conduct their first workout at Nationals Park, in a minor league game at the team's spring complex in Viera. If he can't go, the Nationals could slide left-hander John Lannan -- the apparent odd man out in the battle to make the rotation -- back one day from his scheduled start Thursday.

And if Lannan is in the rotation when the season begins, so be it. The 23-year-old has been solid for much of the spring, posting a 3.07 ERA in four major league outings, including six innings of one-run ball against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.

If Redding is indeed ready, then Lannan would likely be part of a Columbus rotation that will almost certainly include right-handers Collin Balester, 21; Garrett Mock, 24; Tyler Clippard, 23; and lefty Mike O'Connor, 27.

"You might have a better rotation down there than you do here," said Bob Boone, the vice president of player development, chuckling.

It is, no doubt, a huge upgrade over last season, when veterans such as Chris Michalak and Mike Bacsik -- and even Redding, struggling at the time -- filled out the Class AAA rotation. Boone believes it's an upgrade throughout the entire system.

"The first thing you noticed when we took over here was, 'Oh, my God. We've got this mishmash. We've got to get younger, but better,' " he said. "Now, we've got guys with big arms that we're going to have to release, guys that we never would've released two years ago. And that's a really good sign."

Acta, too, feels more comfortable because all of those pitchers spent time in major league camp this spring, and he is personally familiar with their demeanors and their repertoires. Balester, ranked as the organization's top pitching prospect, made three appearances in Grapefruit League games, giving up three runs in 7 1/3 innings. O'Connor has overcome elbow problems and appears back to the form that got him to the majors in 2006. Clippard, acquired in an offseason trade, made six starts for the New York Yankees last year and allowed three runs in eight spring innings. And Mock, in his first major league camp, showed an impressive four-pitch arsenal, though he needs better command.

Redding, though, would prefer those pitchers not be promoted because of him. After retiring the first nine men he faced -- giving him 13 straight scoreless innings -- he said he wanted to pitch the fourth despite the tug he felt in his back while warming up. "I'm hard-headed," he said.

The results changed instantly. He allowed a single, a double, a walk and another double. After a groundout, he cut off a pitch to Jorge Cantu. Though it scooted by catcher Paul Lo Duca, allowing a run to score, Redding didn't cover the plate, instead grabbing his knees. He went to the clubhouse and immediately received treatment, and was officially diagnosed with right thoracic spasms -- or spasms in the middle of his back on the right side. The injury does not affect his arm, Redding said.

"There's a noticeable bulge," Redding said. "It just feels like it's a knot. Nothing major, day-to-day. It could go away tomorrow. It could be there a day or two and then go away."

Redding, clearly, wants no part of any setbacks. He posted a 3.64 ERA in 15 starts for the Nationals in 2007, a season in which he re-established himself.

"The way I finished the year, and the way I've been throwing this spring," he said, "I feel like physically I'm as strong and capable of doing what I've been able to do when I was younger [and] throwing harder."

But if he's not ready, the Nationals can choose from a group of kids who, a year ago, weren't prepared.

"We have options this year," Acta said. "That's what at least gives you a little peace of mind."

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