As Nationals head North, still uncertainty over starting infield Print
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Thursday, 27 March 2008 11:41
MLB Headline News

 VIERA, Fla. (AP) -As the Washington Nationals played their final Florida spring training game, a 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday, no one knew for sure what the right side of the team's starting infield will look like when the games count.
Well, manager Manny Acta knows. He's made up his mind on whether it will be Nick Johnson or Dmitri Young at first base and hitting cleanup, and whether Felipe Lopez or Ronnie Belliard will play second.
Acta is keeping those decisions a secret for now - even from his players. They won't get word until Saturday, the day before the Nationals host the Atlanta Braves to begin the regular season.
The competition at first base is intriguing, for it pits a guy who was the team's best hitter in 2007 (Young) against a guy who Acta has called its most important hitter in 2006 (Johnson). A guy who won NL comeback player of the year honors in 2007 (Young) against a guy who missed all of last season with a broken right leg (Johnson).
Everyone, Young included, is aware Johnson is the better fielder.
``I hit .320 last year. I ain't the best first baseman in the world, but I made only nine errors, so that speaks for itself. Comeback player of the year. All-Star player. Nick has a pretty good resume himself,'' Young said after playing four innings against Baltimore.
``It's one of those things where people tend to overlook .320. That's not easy to do. And there are other teams out there, so, really if I was to hear that Nick got it, he would get a congratulations from me because he worked his tail off to get back. Will I be a little upset? Yeah. I want to start. But that's anybody.''
He missed time this spring with a bad back and didn't travel to the Nationals' final two road games Tuesday and Wednesday, when Johnson made two starts and finished with a .286 average in 49 exhibition at-bats. Young's 1-for-2 on Thursday put him at .292 in 24 at-bats.
Asked to assess his spring, Young smiled.
``It went perfect. I didn't have to make every single trip and get 1,000 at-bats. I'm 34 now. I've been doing this for a long time,'' he said. ``It doesn't take six weeks for people to get loose. Of course, when you deal with an injury, you just want to be ready for the season.''
Johnson, whose last regular-season game was in September 2006, has satisfied himself and his manager that he's ready to get back to being the player who established all sorts of career highs that season: .290 batting average, 46 doubles, 23 homers, 77 RBIs, 110 walks.
``I'm moving around great. No problems. Body feels fine,'' Johnson said. ``That's the main thing. Staying healthy.''
That's not something for which he has a reputation.
But when Johnson is on the field, he is known for his glovework and his ability to get on base.
``He's ready to go,'' Acta said. ``He's done well this spring training against every type of competition they've thrown out there: lefties, righties, minor leaguers, established big leaguers.''
Lopez struggled at the plate last season, hitting .245, and he now attributes those problems to being distracted by off-the-field issues he doesn't want to discuss in detail - and which he says are behind him.
He says his mind is ``straight'' and he's ready to perform well.
``I don't care about the competition. Whatever happens, happens. I don't have control over that,'' said Lopez, who homered off Orioles starter Steve Trachsel in the third inning.
Would he rather start?
``Of course,'' Lopez said. ``And I think you'd rather have somebody like that, who's hungry to win, instead of being like, 'Oh, that's all right. I accept it.' I'm hungry. I want to play.''
Notes: Orioles manager Dave Trembley said the team's final roster moves will depend in part on whether OF Jay Gibbons' 15-day suspension for being linked to performance-enhancing drugs will he reduced. ``I'm waiting like everybody else is to see what happens,'' Trembley said. ... Trembley said it's fair to assume Luis Hernandez will be the opening-day shortstop, but said there's a possibility he and Brandon Fahey will share time. Fahey played at 3B and LF against Washington. ... Trachsel allowed one run in six innings. ``It was a good strong way to finish the spring,'' he said. He and other starters will be told their spots in the rotation Friday, Trembley said. ... After the game, the Nationals were flying to Washington, then were heading to Nationals Park to check out their new stadium.
 

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