MILWAUKEE – Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel was back with the team on Tuesday afternoon, taking up residence as a healthy player on the roster for the first time since he rolled over his right wrist making a diving play in the outfield at Nationals Park on May 2.
He was back, after an 18-day stay on the disabled list for the sprain in that wrist, but he wasn’t back in his usual starting spot in center field.
Instead, with the Nationals facing a left-handed pitcher Tuesday night in Milwaukee, and needing Michael Morse at first base in Adam LaRoche’s absence, manager Jim Riggleman was forced to play Brian Bixler in left field. Roger Bernadina, who was called up to replace Ankiel on May 7, has simply become to valuable as a leadoff hitter to take him out of the lineup.
“The leadoff spot is the key,” Riggleman said. “We know Ankiel’s a good center fielder but at this point, I feel very good about the way both (Ankiel and Bernadina) have played center field.”
Morse being thrust into action at first base leaves the Nationals with something of a predicament in the outfield. Instead of being able to sub one of Ankiel, Bernadina or Nix out and easily sub Morse in when a left-handed starting pitcher is set to throw against Washington, they are left scrambling some what.
With Ankiel (.235), Nix (.194) and Bernadina (.237) all with tough career averages against left-handers entering Tuesday, Bernadina got the start in center but, with Nix’s left foot ailing some, right-handed Bixler was instead called on in left field.
Bixler has played just one career major league game in left field, and it wasn’t as a starter. He was getting time there occasionally at Triple-A before he was called up to the nationals on April 23, but his experience there is limited. Still, with a .250 career average against left-handers, he was the Nationals best option Tuesday night.
“He’s such a good athlete,” Riggleman said. “He might be the fastest guy on the team with the exception of Bernadina. I’m comfortable (with him in left) but I haven’t seen him play that much so I’m just kind of putting the foot speed and the athleticism out there and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Nationals plan to ease Ankiel back into game action after such a long layoff – but they’re also evaluating what they have in Bernadina and Nix has been the team’s best hitter to this point. It’d be tough for Ankiel to take at-bats away from either, especially as another left-hander, but that’s part of the juggling the Nationals will have to do now.
“We made a point when Rick got hurt to not just put (Bernadina) out there to really let’s take a look and see what’s happening out there because we’ve got to make some calls on Bernadina down the road,” Riggleman said. “Is he a legitimate major league center fielder or is he best suited for left? In the past the feeling’s always been left but if he plays a good center field we want to look at that closely enough.
“He’s made a couple plays that I don’t think anybody else makes, unbelievable plays… My guess is he’s caught as many balls out there as most major league center fielders.”
Ankiel, who would certainly be given the advantage when it comes to his arm in the outfield, may also see some time at first base, despite not having played there competitively since – by his estimate – high school. He has never played there in the major leagues but does take grounders there in the offseason in order to be prepared for anything. If he can fill in at first adequately, it would free up Morse to be the right-handed outfielder the Nationals are lacking.
“We’ll look at just trying to keep them all sharp and take advantage of a hot hand here and there and see where it goes,” Riggleman said.