The Washington Times - March 25, 2011, 08:31AM

VIERA, Fla. — At some point in the next five days, Jim Riggleman is going to be asked about the center field battle and the Nationals’ manager is going to come out with an official answer.

Rick Ankiel, Nyjer Morgan or Roger Bernadina.


The opportunities for making impressions are waning.

If playing time is any indication, Roger Bernadina looks to be the first man out of the competition for the starting role. Only twice since March 14 has Bernadina gotten more than two at-bats. As such, he’s seen his batting average fall 20 points from .281 to .261 while Ankiel and Morgan have gotten the lion’s share of the playing time. However, he’ll be getting the start in left field Friday night against the Cardinals.

So let’s say that the race is down to just two, Ankiel and Morgan. Ankiel played center Thursday night in Lakeland, going 2-for-3 with two well-struck balls, one a double, while also walking and scoring a run. Morgan was the designated hitter, going 1-for-4 with three strikeouts and subtracting almost any points he got by reaching on an infield single, stealing second and scoring on a single by Jayson Werth — exactly what the Nationals want him to do — by following it with the three straight strikeouts.

Morgan is expected to play center field Friday night against the Cardinals and, judging by the lineup that was posted on Thursday, Ankiel will get the day off.

So let’s look at what each player brings to the table:

Of all the players the Nationals have, Morgan is the most prototypical leadoff hitter. He’s speedy, had a .319 on-base percentage in 2010 and, despite stealing safely only 66 percent of the time in 2010, he’s an agitator on the base paths. He also makes some curious plays in center field (including the occasional throw to the wrong base) and his on-field attitude issues have been well documented.

Morgan has pledged to be a better man this year, and that’s all well and good, but his performance on the field this spring hasn’t dictated that he be kept in the lineup as an every day starter. Reformed or not, he’s still hitting .235. Though, to be fair, Ankiel is hitting .229.

Riggleman announced yesterday that Jayson Werth will most likely bat second this season — a surprise since he’s been hitting third almost the entire spring and the Nationals had said early on that’s where he’d be. Regardless, Werth batting second makes it easier for the Nationals to feel comfortable slotting Ian Desmond in as a leadoff hitter, making it easier to play Ankiel in center field and bat him sixth, where his power could be of more use and his lower OBP (.312 career) wouldn’t be as much of a factor.

Ankiel winning the job, though, most likely means it would turn into a platoon of sorts with Ankiel batting sixth and playing center against right-handers and Jerry Hairston Jr. leading off and playing center against left-handers.

Ankiel would seem to bring more to the table: He plays a serviceable center field and has an absolute cannon for an arm, he can hit for power when fully healthy, and he provides the Nationals with some lineup flexibility.

As Riggleman said last night, “(Ankiel’s) a good athlete. You put him out there and you feel like he’s going to have some impact on the game somewhere.”

Both Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo have said the team can take the competition all the way to the end of spring training but I’d keep an eye on the lineups the next few days, they’ll be especially telling when it comes to the outfield.

Soon, we’ll have an answer.