VIERA, Fla., Feb. 28 -- Jerome Williams sat at his locker Wednesday afternoon at Space Coast Stadium, explaining a few things about how he will approach his quest to win a spot in the vast expanse of empty space known as the Washington Nationals' starting rotation. Just then, a grown man with the scruffy beard of a billy goat leaned over and kissed Williams on the top of the head.
"I love this guy," Tim Redding said.
They have never played on the same team, never been with the same organization. Over the winter, though, they answered the same want ad. Now, their lockers sit beside each other. And Wednesday, they began the battle for the same job: starting pitcher for the Nationals.
Yes, it was merely an intrasquad scrimmage. But given the perhaps unprecedented nature of this spring for the Nationals -- four starting slots must be filled by someone -- there is no time to experiment or go half-speed, whether there are fans in the stands or not.
"Is Manny out there watching the game?" Redding said afterward, mentioning Manager Manny Acta. "It's a game, isn't it? If it doesn't mean anything, then why are we wasting our time playing against each other? It means something for each one of us here. It has to."
There isn't quite that much tension in the day-to-day exchanges among the dozen or so pitchers competing for those jobs, and both Redding and Williams realize that if anyone were to handicap the race now, just before Friday's Grapefruit League opener, they would be in the meat of the conversation. Each has won 10 games in a major league season before (though, for Redding, that distinction came when he went 10-14 in 2003 with Houston, a year in which he posted a 3.68 ERA).
They also realize how closely they're being scrutinized.
"You're still going to have to show in spring training that you're" capable, Acta said. "We're not just going to hand it out because, some time ago, you won 10 games."
So, in a way, each pitch mattered Wednesday. Both pitchers were limited to 45 pitches or two innings, whichever came first. Williams had the easier time of it, allowing a pair of bouncing-ball singles in the first to go with a single and a hit batsman in the second, but he didn't allow a run. Williams has been working with pitching coach Randy St. Claire on smoothing his delivery and getting more extension to the plate, which will allow him to better spot his fastball.
Those adjustments, he believes, will help him return to the form he had in the minors, when he was a dominant prospect for the San Francisco Giants. In his first two major league seasons, Williams went 17-12 with a 3.77 ERA. And when he was only 23, after struggling for part of 2005 with the Giants, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Last year, the Cubs sent him to the minors, and he was never recalled. He has been trying to overcome that ever since.
"I thought negative when I got sent down, and that's probably one reason why I didn't get called back up," he said earlier this spring. "It taught me to be humble. I thought I had it made. . . . But that kind of tells you you need to get better. It teaches you."
At 29, Redding is four years older than Williams, and his only winning season in the majors came in his debut year of 2001, when he went 3-1 in 13 appearances. But Acta managed Redding in Class A ball for the Astros, and he remembers a prospect who was better than current Houston ace Roy Oswalt.
"I've never seen him fail," Acta said.
Redding, though, knows he has failed, albeit when Acta wasn't around.
"He had me seven years ago," Redding said. "He's seen me as an opponent, but he's also seen my track record. It's not very good. All he's trying to do is build off of what he remembers when he had me, and I'm trying to go out there and do the same thing. I'm trying to show him that despite the track record during the time that we've been apart, I'm going to get back to where I was."
Wednesday, that process began with a four-pitch walk of Felipe Lopez to open the game. Redding later picked Lopez off, but he hung a curveball in the second that Ryan Church drilled for a double, leading to the one run he allowed in two innings. Redding has been working on sharpening his slider with Nationals special assistant Jose Rijo, who once mastered the pitch, and he was pleased with its consistent break Wednesday.
"Some good, some bad," was his overall assessment. That, too, could speak for this entire race to win jobs in the rotation. The competition has begun even before the Grapefruit League games, and it could last the entire month of March.
"The reason why it's so open and there's such a controversy," Redding said, "is because there's a new manager. There's new coaches. Even the kids who have come up through the farm system, they have to prove stuff to new people. We all have to show what we can do."