He was a player going nowhere in the lowest of minor leagues until Francisco Rodriguez, Juan Rincon and Giovanni Carrara changed everything.

Washington Nationals prospect Frank Diaz found himself this past winter playing in the winter leagues of his native Venezuela, standing at the plate against some of his best compatriots and suddenly everything didn't seem so hard. Maybe there was hope for him after all.

"I faced some major league pitchers and I thought to myself, 'I can handle major league pitching,' " he said through an interpreter as he warmed up for Sunday's Futures Game.

The boost in his confidence propelled the outfielder to a strong start at Class A Potomac, hitting .306 with eight home runs and nine stolen bases. And it's put him on a national stage that seemed impossible to imagine even a year ago.

"I think they have long-range plans for me," said Diaz, who is not on the Nationals' 40-man roster. "I played three [major league] games in spring training and they seemed positive."

The criticism of the 21-year-old Diaz is that he needs to understand the strike zone better despite only 39 strikeouts in 340 at-bats at Potomac. This worry was confirmed Sunday as he struck out in his two at-bats, the first time waving badly at three curveballs.

Loewen, Johnson Pitch

The Baltimore Orioles continue to see young pitchers develop. Sunday, two of their starters from Class A Frederick -- Adam Loewen and James Johnson -- pitched in the Futures Game with varying degrees of success.

Adam Loewen, a No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, threw an inning Sunday, earning a save for the World team. His only blemish in the three batters he faced was a walk that was quickly erased with a double play. Johnson, a late addition to the game, gave up a run and three hits in one-third of an inning.

But both seem pleased with their progress in the Orioles' system.

"I think they want me to mature right now as a pitcher and see how I handle situations," said Loewen, a native of Canada who is 2-6 with a 4.62 ERA at Frederick.

Johnson said he feels better after moving last winter to Sarasota, Fla., where the Orioles have a minor league camp. He said he feels more confident and can last longer in games, perhaps shown in his 7-4 record and 3.12 ERA this year.