The Washington Times - March 25, 2013, 09:53PM

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Henry Rodriguez was summoned to pitch the fifth inning Monday night against the Houston Astros. His first seven pitches were balls and one, high and inside, nearly decapitated former teammate Rick Ankiel. 

But then Rodriguez settled down. He struck out the second batter he faced, Ronny Cedeno, looking (despite falling behind 3-0. He got Marwin Gonzalez to pop to short, and he sent Brett Wallace back to the dugout with another looking strikeout to end the frame. 

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“Had me worried again,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, by now used to the unexpected with Rodriguez on the mound. “He threw the ball good. He was a lot better. I’m going to go to him again. Give him a day off and come back at him.”

Johnson has said all spring that his power pitchers take longer than the rest to really lock in and harness their stuff. Rodriguez, who missed a good chuck of 2012 with a large bone chip in his right elbow and didn’t pitch in winter ball, would certainly fall into that category.

But Johnson has also indicated that as long as the right-hander is healthy, he will be on the roster. 

Monday night, one day after he said Rodriguez was dealing with some elbow soreness that turned out to be from getting stretched by the trainers, Johnson danced around the question of whether Rodriguez will be ready by Opening Day.

“We’re not at that point yet,” Johnson said, asked if it’s a possibility Rodriguez would begin the season on the disabled list. “But if I have to get some extra work, going back-to-back, I might have him pitch one of those games over on the (minor league) side to get him some work.

“He’s going to take some time. I think his arm is feeling pretty good but just power pitchers always have a problem, every spring I’ve ever had. And with what he went through in the winter, he’s behind everybody. But he’ll get it. He’ll get it. And when he throws it over, he’s nasty.

Perhaps complicating the matter is the Nationals’ latest acquisition, J.C. Romero.

The Nationals made it clear to Romero when he signed late last week that it was not realistic for him to make the Opening Day roster and he’d likely have to go to the minor leagues to be ready when needed.

But if Rodriguez winds up not being ready for the season, Romero could be the Nationals’ choice instead — and would allow them to add a second left-hander to their relief corps. In his first appearance with the Nationals this spring, Romero turned in a 1-2-3 inning with two groundouts and a strikeout.

“Hit his spots, zip on the fastball, had some good breaking balls,” Johnson said. “He looks ready to me.”

“I’m ready,” Romero said. “I feel ready. I’m healthy… I think for me, not only playing winter ball but also playing in the World Baseball Classic, pretty much I didn’t stop throwing the whole year. That’s carrying over and I feel good. I feel real good.”

Romero said the WBC, in which he pitched for Puerto Rico, not only helped him to prepare for the season physically, particularly because he was unsigned at that point, but it also helped him mentally.

“The intensity is higher than the regular games and pretty much it’s pretty much playoff intensity,” he said. “The execution of pitches, you have the be right on point because if not it could get ugly. For me being able to go over there, it helped me a lot. It also helped me with my edge. When I face hitters here now, I keep having in mind the same approach I had in the WBC.”

– A few other notes from the Nationals’ 6-4 loss to the Astros:

Craig Stammen gave up five runs in 1 1/3 innings of work off six hits and a walk. He struck out three. Johnson brushed aside any concerns about the strong right-hander, attributing any issue to a lack of work. Stammen last pitched on March 21, but before Monday night had only pitched once in nine days and his outing on the 21st was efficient, with regard to his pitch count.

“He probably was too strong,” Johnson said. “They had their hitting shoes on but he needed the work.”

– Johnson was also planning to go four outs with Storen, testing him with something new by bringing him in mid-inning, but Storen was summoned to relieve Stammen and get two outs in the seventh (instead of one), so the 2/3 of an inning was all he got. Romero pitched the eighth.

Still, the idea was to give the right-hander experience doing something he rarely did as a closer in coming in mid-inning, and he accomplished that.

– Adam LaRoche hit his second home run in as many games (and his third of the spring) as part of a 2-for-3 day.

– Bryce Harper also continued his torrid spring with a 3-for-3 night, bringing his spring average up to .459. 

– Astros manager Bo Porter has a difficult task ahead of him, but he’s upbeat and excited for the challenge ahead. And he’s already won one battle in getting his players to buy in.