VIERA, Fla. (AP) -Paul Lo Duca spent a good chunk of his Monday meticulously updating the NCAA tournament pool charts hanging in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium.
There he was in the morning, down on the floor, using a metal rod to help make sure the lines he drew were straight. And there he was in the afternoon, up on a stool, filling in the points accrued by teammates with their picks.
In between, Lo Duca tended to his day job: He caught for the Washington Nationals during their 5-3 exhibition loss to the Detroit Tigers, going 2-for-3 with an RBI double before being replaced by a pinch runner in the seventh inning.
It was the first time Lo Duca has played in major league games on consecutive days as he comes off left knee surgery. Afterward, he pronounced himself fit - and set for the regular season despite a shortened spring training.
``My knee feels great. Everything's on schedule,'' said Lo Duca, who signed a $5 million, one-year deal with Washington after two seasons with the New York Mets. ``The timing's starting to come a little bit, so hopefully it will be there opening night.''
Barring a setback, Lo Duca will be behind the plate when left-hander Odalis Perez winds up and throws the first pitch in Nationals Park history, Sunday night against the Atlanta Braves.
Lo Duca and Perez were teammates during the pitcher's best years with the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2002-04.
``He knows how to call games,'' Perez said. ``He's intelligent. He's smart. ... He has a good memory.''
Lo Duca's muscle memory appeared to be in tiptop shape Monday. In the second inning, he looked just fine running out his double to left off Nate Robertson (one run in 5 1-3 innings). After popping out in his next at-bat, Lo Duca singled to left-center off right-handed reliever Aquilino Lopez in the seventh, making him 3-for-9 in three games.
His first Grapefruit League appearance was Friday, but Lo Duca said: ``I'm ready to go.'' Then he repeated that phrase.
``This is perfect timing,'' he said, dismissing the idea he'd prefer to have more exhibition games to prepare. ``Maybe it was a blessing. Spring training's way too long anyway. So I'm looking forward to getting the heck out of here, believe me.''
Jesus Flores will begin the season as Lo Duca's primary backup, until Johnny Estrada is over the left elbow problems that are expected to land him on the disabled list. Estrada, who had offseason operations on his throwing elbow and a knee, worked on throwing from home to second Monday, then participated in batting practice with his teammates for the first time.
``I've been on the shelf for a while,'' Estrada said. ``I was just excited today about hitting on the field. I was sick of hitting in the cage.''
Once Estrada can play, the Nationals plan to have the 23-year-old Flores in the lineup at Double-A Harrisburg. Until then, though, Flores will spell Lo Duca.
Lo Duca didn't sound like someone who wants too many days off. He didn't look like someone who needs them right now, either, the way he played Monday.
``It's a luxury to have a guy like him hitting in the bottom of our lineup. He's a proven good hitter at this level,'' manager Manny Acta said. ``He's a .280 lifetime hitter. A contact hitter who doesn't strike out. That's what he is. And a guy who can do different things. He can bunt a guy over if you need to. He can move a guy over. Money in the bank.''
And no one around these parts expects Lo Duca's limited time behind the plate to be a hindrance when it comes to handling a mostly inexperienced rotation.
``Once the season starts and the game plans are really in effect, that's when you're really going to see Paul Lo Duca,'' said Jason Bergmann, who allowed two earned runs in 5 2-3 innings against Detroit. ``Once you start facing the NL East, this guy's really going to know each hitter inside and out.''
Notes: Tigers manager Jim Leyland on Robertson: ``I think he ran out of gas a little earlier than we wanted him to. But it was a good outing.'' ... Nationals 3B Ryan Zimmerman hit his fourth homer of the spring. ... Tigers minor league outfielder Brennan Boesch was locked in the visitor's dugout bathroom for about 30 minutes before the game, until stadium workers pried open the door with a crowbar. ``If it had been me, that door would have been down, because I'm claustrophobic,'' Leyland said. ``I've never seen that in all my years of baseball.'' ... Leyland plans to mostly bat SS Edgar Renteria leadoff while CF Curtis Granderson (broken finger) is out. C Ivan Rodriguez might bat leadoff against LHPs.

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