The Washington Times - October 26, 2009, 04:31PM

Hello from Phoenix Municipal Stadium, spring training home of the Oakland A’s and Arizona Fall League home of the Phoenix Desert Dogs. Since I was already in Southern California covering the west coast half of the NLCS and ALCS, and since there are a couple of days to kill before the World Series, this seemed like a good time to run over to the Valley of Sun for a couple of days to check out the Nationals’ prospects competing in this all-star, six-week league. (The fact it’s 80 degrees under clear blue skies here didn’t hurt, either.)

Obviously, Stephen Strasburg is the focus of the AFL, and I’ll be interested to watch him pitch for the Desert Dogs tomorrow against the Surprise Rafters. But the Almighty Strasburg isn’t the only name of consequence participating this league out of the Nats’ farm system. In fact, they arguably were going to have their top five prospects out here: Strasburg, Drew Storen, Chris Marrero, Derek Norris and Danny Espinosa. Norris, though, broke the hamate bone in his left hand in the Florida instructional league, so he never made it here.

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Still, the Nats are represented quite well in the AFL, and they’ve acquitted themselves well through the season’s first two weeks. Marrero is tearing the cover off the ball, hitting .387 with two homers, eight RBI and seven walks through his first eight games. Now, this is known as a hitter’s league — did you know that Phoenix has the second-highest elevation in the majors at 1,200 feet above sea level? Only Denver is higher — but Marrero still is facing some of the best pitching the minor leagues have to offer. All the more impressive considering he only has a month’s worth of experience at Class AA and is a bit behind most everyone else playing in this league.

“It’s just a great experience playing with the top guys from every organization,” Marrero said. “You’re seeing the best. So just being able to compare yourself here, I feel like I’m playing to my ability, and I just want to keep playing like this.”

Espinosa has even less experience. He spent all of last season at Class A Potomac, so he’s facing a competition level he’s never experienced before. The shortstop from Long Beach State certainly doesn’t seem fazed by any of this. He’s hitting .321 with five RBI in eight games and is wowing people with his strong throwing arm. (He suffered a very minor ankle injury last week on a hard slide into second base, but he’s fine. Unlike the guy he slid into, the Tigers’ Scott Sizemore, who fractured his leg and is out for the rest of the AFL season.)

“It’s kind of funny, it’s such a hitter’s league. That’s what everyone says,” Espinosa said. “But the competion that we’re facing pitching-wise is very tough. There’s a lot of velocity out here. Everyone here can throw whatever pitch they want for a strike.”

Storen, the Nats’ “other” first-round pick this year, has picked up right where he left off at the end of a fabulous first season in the minors. The reliever has yet to allow an earned run in 4 2/3 innings, while striking out five and only walking one. Though he’s been a professional for only four months, Storen is perhaps the farthest along developmentally of the Nats’ prospects here and is the safest bet out of the group to make the opening day roster.

“To face these good hitters and have the ability to get them out … if you’re able to pitch well in this league, you’re going to have success down the road,” Storen said. “You’ve really got to pay attention to each pitch, no matter what number in the order the guy is. I don’t even pay attention to whether I’m facing the top or the bottom of the order, because everyone’s a good hitter here.”

There are three other Nats here. Catcher Sean Rooney (who replaced Norris on the roster) is 1-for-3, having played in only one game. And pitchers Jeff Mandel (one run allowed in four innings) and Josh Wilkie (5 1/3 innings without an earned run allowed) have done well so far.

I’ll have a story on all those guys running in Wednesday morning’s paper, then an in-depth feature on Strasburg sometime after the end of the World Series, once he’s had a few more starts under his belt and his performance can be put into some context. But be sure to check back here tomorrow afternoon for some live, first-hand impressions of Strasburg’s outing. The game starts at 3:35 Eastern.