Manager Davey Johnson gave Brian Bixler his second consecutive start in center field tonight, the first time Bixler has started back-to-back games all season. The pitching matchups influenced the decision – the Nationals have faced two left-handed starters in a row, one reason to put Rick Ankiel on the bench.

But Johnson also sees Bixler, 28, as a useful player to the Nationals’ future and wanted to give him a chance to settle in for two days.

“I want to give him some playing time,” Johnson said. “We’re very high on him in the organization. Basically, I’m trying to get him at-bats. I’ve felt bad about it, because I like to play my bench. I’ve been using Bixler as a defensive replacement, not giving him much opportunity to swing the bat.”

In his defensive role, Bixler has unexpectedly shined, making a pair of diving catches in the ninth during the Nationals’ homestand. Bixler had played mostly infield during his career before becoming a utilityman.

“I’m just kind of running around out there, tracking balls,” Bixler said. “It’s fun. That’s one thing I want to be able to do, is play every spot.”

With his speed and versatility, Bixler has made himself into a valuable bench player. He’ll make the league minimum for the next two seasons, and so the Nationals could have him a fill that often eats up payroll – the Nationals signed Jerry Hairston, for example, to a one-year, $2.1 million contract this winter. And Johnson has actually compared Bixler to Hairston, whom the Nationals traded to Milwaukee at the deadline.