March 2010

Harris to be Opening Day starter; Bernie in outfield mix

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said if the regular season started Sunday, Willie Harris would be the Opening Day right fielder against the Phillies.

Harris most likely would face Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay, a pitcher Harris has never faced during his career.

It would mark the second time Harris would be in the Opening Day lineup. The first time occurred on April 5, 2004, when he led off for the White Sox. He went 0-for-4 against the Royals that day. 

“I’m looking forward to that Opening Day start,” said the left-handed hitting Harris said. “We are facing a tough pitcher that day. It doesn’t matter who we are facing. I’m just happy to have that opportunity.” 

Just because Harris is the Opening Day right fielder, does not mean he will be play that position on a regular basis.

The club is already talking about a platoon between Harris and Justin Maxwell. If that doesn’t work, the second option is platooning Harris with Mike Morse.

Riggleman also added Sunday that Roger Bernadina is now in the mix to be a platoon player. Bernadina, a solid defensive outfielder, is 7-for-28 [.250] with an RBI this spring.

“What I think is going to happen is, whoever is swinging a hot bat is going to play. That’s how it really goes — no matter what,” Harris said. “If you are swinging a hot bat and you are doing everything right — helping the team win and bringing energy every day — you are going to play.”

Don’t rule out general manager Mike Rizzo trying to acquire a right fielder. Jermaine Dye is still a free agent. Don’t look for the Nationals to break bank to acquire his services. If Dye is too expensive, look for the Washington to make a trade for an outfielder.

Chico optioned to Syracuse; Burke to the DL

The Nationals optioned left-hander Matt Chico to Triple-A Syracuse, while re-assigning left-hander Doug Slaten and catcher Jamie Burke to Minor League camp Saturday.  

Of the three, Chico is the most intriguing because he had a chance to become the fifth starter in the rotation. After missing almost two years because of elbow reconstruction, Chico proved he is 100 percent healthy, but it wasn’t enough.

In three outings — including an intrasquad game — Chico gave up five earned runs in seven innings. In two of those starts, Chico looked like the player who collected a lot of groundball outs. The bad performance came March 13, when Chico gave up the five earned runs in an inning- plus against the Astros. That usually means that he can’t throw strikes with his breaking ball. Chico will be the first to say he can’t throw just his fastball to get by.

“I felt I would be probably be a long shot out of anyone just because of the history of being out [for almost two years],” Chico said. “The only thing I could do was come and show that I’m healthy and throw some pitches a little better than I did before. I think I did that. I’ll just take it all in stride going into the season.”

General manager Mike Rizzo, who drafted Chico when both were with the D-backs, felt Chico needed more innings in the Minor Leagues after being out of action for a long time.

“The decision [to send Chico to Syracuse] was performance based and developmental based, but I feel he is 100 percent back from his surgery,” Rizzo said. “His arm looks better, he looks stronger and crisp than when he started the 31 [Major League] games for us in 2007. 

“I told him that he hasn’t looked this good since his early days with the Diamondbacks. He was a pleasant surprise in Spring Training. I felt,  because of the lack of innings that he lost, he needs to go and refine his skills down in the Minor Leagues. He is not an overhaul-type of guy at all. He needs to go get his innings and correct the flaws that he has gained after losing all that time.”

As for Slaten and Burke, they most likely will start the season in Syracuse with Burke starting the season on the disabled list. He has a torn right meniscus and is expected to miss four to six weeks.           

Nats make announcement on Spring Training rainouts

In response to rainouts incurred on March 11 (Houston Astros) and March 12 (New York Yankees), the Washington Nationals today announced the following policies for Spring Training Season-Ticket Holders only:

Nationals Spring Training season-ticket holders can exchange March 11 and/or March 12 tickets for:

A. Tickets for any future 2010 or 2011 Nationals Grapefruit League contest at Space Coast Stadium or

B.  Account credit toward the 2011 Grapefruit League season at Space Coast Stadium. Note the 2011 Grapefruit League schedule has not yet been announced.

Those requesting account credit for March 11 and/or March 12th should submit a written request. All such requests should reference the refund option and include the March 11th and/or March 12th game tickets, the ticket holders mailing address and the season ticket account number, and should be sent no later than September 1, 2010 to:

Nationals Park

ATTN: Spring Training Season Ticket Holder

1500 South Capitol Street, S.E.

Washington, DC 20003

Season-Ticket holders that purchased additional tickets for the March 12th contest against the Yankees can exchange those tickets for another 2010 or 2011 Nationals Grapefruit League contest at Space Coast Stadium, or have the value of these tickets credited towards their season ticket account for the 2011 Grapefruit League season at Space Coast Stadium.

Any Season-Ticket holder sending in their tickets will receive a credit for the value of parking purchased for the March 11 and/or March 12 Grapefruit League games at Space Coast Stadium.

Dunn unable to play against Astros

Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn was unable to play against the Astros on Wednesday because of lower back spasms.

Dunn hurt his back in the top of the second inning the previous day after attempting to grab a ball hit by Marlins infielder Logan Morrison. Dunn was charged with an error on the play. After that game, Dunn vowed that he would make the trip to Kissimmee, Fla., to play against Houston, but he was still in pain when he woke up Wednesday morning.

He managed to make the trip with the team and was in the starting lineup. Dunn was able to take hitting practice without a problem, but had trouble moving on defense. Manager Jim Riggleman then decided to give Dunn another day off. Dunn hopes he could play against the Cardinals on Friday.

“I felt the hitting was OK. It wasn’t as bad as I thought, but it was kind of when I was bending down, [the pain] was still kind of there,” Dunn said. “We’ll get an off day. I’ll be in there Friday. Yesterday, it got better in a hurry. I was off the trainer’s table in 45 minutes. … If it was April 17th, I’m playing.”

Nats continue to have pitching problems

The Nationals continue to have problems on the mound after an 11-2 loss to the Astros at Osceola County Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

Washington’s ERA is now at 7.92 and the staff has walked 61 batters in 119 1/3 innings. 

Right-hander Jason Marquis started for Washington and had nothing in the tank, allowing eight runs in 3 1/3 innings, while walking four batters. Marquis said he didn’t have a feel for any of his pitches and declined to give excuses for his less-than-stellar performance.

The last time he pitched in an exhibition game was March 7 against the Mets, but he pitched in a simulated game last Friday at Space Coast Stadium. A rainout that day prevented him from facing the Yankees.   
       
“We have to go back to the drawing board and try to feel comfortable with the baseball,” Marquis said.  “I have an idea what I want to work on. So all you do is work, work and keep working until you get the feel of what you want and see what happens.”

Marquis wasn’t the only Nationals pitcher having problems Wednesday. Right-hander Matt Capps, Drew Storen and Tyler Walker continue to struggle, allowing a combined three runs in three innings. What’s the problem? They can’t seem to throw first-pitch strikes and the opposing hitters has the advantage at the plate.
   
“Today, I don’t know if we ever threw a first-pitch strike,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “It’s just a reminder to our guys that we have to get ahead in the count. Today, we didn’t do it.”

So how to the Nationals fix their control problems as they get closer to Opening Day?

“A lot of the guys [who are going through control problems] are not going to be with us,” Riggleman said. “But, as we narrow things down, if that were to continue, it would be a concern. But I don’t think that is going to continue.”

Nats release Dukes; may have interest in Dye

The Nationals released right fielder Elijah Dukes and right-hander Logan Kensing on Wednesday morning.

Dukes’ release is the most significant because he was slated to be the starting right fielder, but he was not producing during Spring Training, going 3-for-20 (.150) with five strikeouts. He had problems hitting breaking balls, and he was suffering from knee and foot issues.

General manager Mike Rizzo said Dukes was released based on performance, not any off-the-field incidents. But Rizzo did say the clubhouse would be more united.

“We just didn’t see the progress we hoped to get,” Rizzo said. “This was not a knee-jerk reaction on several Spring Training at-bats. We spoke about this throughout the winter internally. We had a game plan in place to see who was going to claim the job, and we thought we should go in a different direction by releasing Elijah.

“The things that happened in the clubhouse are clubhouse matters. We are not going to go into any details on what happened behind closed doors. We have a more cohesive, united group. I think the chemistry will continue to be great. We think we are going to be a better ballclub moving forward.”

Before giving Dukes his unconditional release, Rizzo tried to trade the right-handed-hitting slugger, but there were no takers. The organization even felt that going to the Minor Leagues wasn’t going to help Dukes.

“We felt that he was a Major League player,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t feel it would help his development by sending him to the Minor Leagues. We thought that it was best for him get a fresh start with a different organization and for us to move on.”

Spring Training looked so promising for Dukes. Manager Jim Riggleman indicated that the job in right field was Dukes’ to lose. Dukes came into camp in great spirits and without his advisor, James Williams, who was dismissed after being on the team’s payroll the previous two years.

The Nationals felt that Dukes, 25, was mature enough to take care of himself. After he returned from Triple-A Syracuse last August, for example, Dukes was media friendly and often talked about what he needed to do to get better on the field.

This spring, Dukes continued to say all the right things about staying in shape, as well as stating that he wasn’t going to assume he was going to play every day.

“At the same time, I’m not laying back. I’m going at it every day in Spring Training,” Dukes said last month.

With Dukes gone, there are three scenarios the Nationals could look into.

The first is a platoon between Justin Maxwell and Willie Harris. Both players can play defense and are above-average hitters who have produced this spring. Maxwell leads the team in walks (seven) and runs scored (eight), while Harris, one of the clubhouse leaders, was 7-for-21 (.333) with a home run and five RBIs entering Wednesday. In fact, Harris played right against the Marlins on Tuesday.

The second is platooning Harris with Mike Morse, who is have a great spring, hitting .333 with four RBIs. Morse hasn’t played the past three games because of the flu.

“I think Willie is a good player, good hitter against right-handed pitching,” Riggleman said. “Willie is a very good left fielder. He is less experienced in right.”

The last time Harris played often was in 2008. He saw himself in the lineup because of injuries to Dukes and Austin Kearns. Harris hit .251 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs that year.

Maxwell said the team had distractions with Dukes, but wouldn’t say what they were. However, he is looking forward to getting a chance to show what he can do on the field.

“I’m working on some things with hitting coach Rick Eckstein,” Maxwell said. “I’m trying to find my comfort zone. That’s the beauty of Spring Training. You find your swing, be ready to go whenever we start.”

If the two scenarios don’t work out, the Nationals could go out into the free-agent market. They do have interest in outfielder Jermaine Dye. The right-handed-hitting outfielder played for the White Sox last season, and hit .250 with 27 home runs and 81 RBIs.

“We feel that we have the candidates to play right field here in camp, but there is always a possibility of doing a lot of things via free agency, trades or waiver claim,” Rizzo said. “We are not going to focus on one form of acquiring a player. We are going to think outside the box and do what we have to do to improve the ballclub.”

Where’s Roger Bernadina? As of now, he does not appear to be in the mix. But things could change. He was asked to change his swing recently, and Bernadina has agreed to make the necessary adjustments.

As for Kensing, he was sent to Minor League camp last week and was told Tuesday that his services were no longer needed. Last year, he pitched in 26 games for Washington and had a 8.68 ERA.

With those moves, the club trimmed its roster to 44 players.

Nats make roster moves; Mock almost in rotation

The Nationals made their third round of roster cuts Monday as they optioned right-hander Collin Balester and left-hander Atahualpa Severino to Triple-A Syracuse, right-hander Ryan Mattheus and left-hander Aaron Thompson to Double-A Harrisburg and right-hander Juan Jamie to Class-A Potomac. The Nationals also released left-hander Ron Villone.

With the moves, Washington’s Major League roster is now down to 45 players.

Of the names off the roster, Balester, Thompson and Villone were the most intriguing. Villone was a favorite of manager Jim Riggleman’s. Last season, Villone was the veteran leader of the bullpen, pitching in 63 games and had a 4.25 ERA. This spring, Villone was hit hard, allowing three runs in 1 2/3 innings. 

“That was tough, not just for me but for [general manager Mike] Rizzo, [pitching coach] Steve McCatty and a lot of people in the clubhouse in general,” Riggleman said. “He is such a class act. He is a wonderful guy. He was an effective pitcher for us last year.”

With Villone gone, the Nationals most likely will carry one lefty reliever — Sean Burnett — on the 25-man roster, even though left-handers Jesse English and Doug Slaten are still in camp.

Riggleman has often said he is confident that right-hander Tyler Clippard can get left-handed hitters out. Lefties hit .122 against him last year.  

Thompson, who was acquired in the Nick Johnson trade last July, pitched four shutout innings and impressed the big-league staff, but he wasn’t considered part of the mix. Riggleman hinted that right-handed Garrett Mock has been impressive and most likely be in the rotation. Mock hasn’t walked a batter in five innings entering Monday’s action. 

“It’s very important to him to pitch to contact and that is not easy for him,” Riggleman said about Mock. “When your ball moves a lot, sometimes it could move out of the strike zone. But he has been able to keep his movement in the strike zone. Even when he doesn’t throw a strike, it has the appearance of a strike. So hitters might swing at it. That’s huge.” 

Livan  Hernandez is considered the leading candidate to take over the fifth spot of the rotation. John Lannan, Jason Marquis and Scott Olsen are already in the rotation.  

Inconsistency is the reason Balester was sent down, giving up four runs in four innings. Rizzo believes Balester has the pitches to get people out.

“The stuff is there,” Rizzo said. “He has a good fastball and a good breaking pitch at times. We still have high hopes for him. He is going to go down and master his craft, get him in the strike zone a little better and be more consistently.”                   

Parking at Space Coast Stadium for Sunday, March 14

Lot 1 is closed – all STH and VIP’s should park in Gate 5. Additional parking will be available at Viera High School. After 1 pm the lot at St. John’s the Evangelist will be open for fans.

Guzman likely to return Saturday

Cristian Guzman’s wife, Evelyn, gave birth to a baby girl Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET., according to Guzman’s agent Stanley King,  The couple named their daughter, Crisangelie Maria Guzman. 

The proud father is expected to return to the Nationals on Saturday and play against the Cardinals the next day.   

The Nationals’ shortstop has played in three exhibition games and is 2-for-10 [.200] with one RBI this spring. 

Ivany, Whitesell re-assigned to Minor League camp

The Nationals re-assigned catcher Devin Ivany and first baseman Josh Whitesell to Minor League camp Friday. 

It was a long shot for either player to make the big-league team. Washington is set behind the plate with Ivan Rodriguez and Wil Nieves, while Chris Duncan and Mike Morse are battling to become Adam Dunn’s back up at first base.

Ivany received one at-bat, while Whitesell went 2-for-8 this spring.

“I don’t think anybody would be happy about getting sent down, so, obviously, it’s a disappointment,” Whitesell said. “I have to go down there, continue to work hard and improve on all facets of my game. I hope to make an impact on this club at some point during this season.”

Ivany wasn’t available for comment.   

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