- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Washington Nationals face a similar predicament as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the small-budget team they defeated 5-4 yesterday in their final Florida exhibition.

With a payroll of $50 million, the Nationals must compete against high-payroll National League East clubs like the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. The Devil Rays, with the game’s smallest payroll ($29 million), face American League East big-spenders New York and Boston a combined 38 times each season.

While Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella can only dream of a .500 season, Washington’s Frank Robinson has more lofty goals for the Nationals.

“What do I consider a good year? Over .500,” Robinson said yesterday. “A considerable number of games over .500 — not one game over .500. I think this club is capable of winning at least 90 games.”

In their final season as the Montreal Expos, Robinson’s went 67-95. However, it won 83 games in each of the two previous seasons.

“We’re talking about seven more ballgames,” Robinson said. “That’s not a heck of a lot of ballgames to win. If we had a little better record on the road, we would have won more than 90 games those two years.”

Decisions, decisions

The 25-man roster is set, but the batting order remains uncertain as the Nationals close the exhibition season against the Mets this afternoon at RFK Stadium.

Robinson used first baseman Nick Johnson in the leadoff spot for the third consecutive game, and he responded with three hits and his second homer in two days. Still, don’t expect to see Johnson leading off in tomorrow’s season opener in Philadelphia.

“I’d be surprised,” Johnson said. “I’ll just come to the park, check it out and get prepared.”

Robinson liked what he saw yesterday as Johnson went 3-for-5 with the homer and two RBI.

“It’s not that I’m really looking at him as a leadoff hitter,” Robinson said. “I just put him up there to help him get going. It’s just good to see Nick swing the bat very well. We’ll find him a spot in the lineup.”

Robinson is expected to put Brad Wilkerson at the top of the order tomorrow. A vacancy opened last week when center fielder Endy Chavez, the leading leadoff candidate, was sent to the minors.

“I talked to Brad the first part of spring and told him the possibility that he might be leading off this year,” Robinson said. “That was just giving him a heads up so it wouldn’t be sprung on him at the last moment.”

Robinson also plans to clarify bullpen assignments after today’s game.

“I’m happy with the bullpen,” Robinson said.

Offensive performance

For a team that had scored 22 runs in its past 10 games, the Nationals’ five runs and 14 hits seemed like winning the lottery to Robinson.

“The offense looked much better,” he said. “I was a little concerned. That’s the best we’ve swung the bats this spring. It’s a good sign It’s coming around just in time.”

Johnson’s three hits led the team while Cristian Guzman, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Ryan Church each had two.

Loaiza lights out

Making his final start of spring training, right-hander Esteban Loaiza pitched a spring-high seven innings, limiting the Devil Rays to five hits and two runs. He struck out four and walked none. In 27 innings this spring, Loaiza walked only one batter.

Back at the Trop

A familiar face was in one of the radio booths at Tropicana Field, just not the one he’s used to. Nationals radio broadcaster Charlie Slowes, a Devil Rays radio announcer the past seven years, made the short drive from his Tampa Bay area home to work the game at Tropicana Field.

Slowes and former broadcast partner Paul Olden’s contracts were not renewed after last season.

“It’s good to be back,” Slowes said. “In reality, I never got to say goodbye to a lot of people because we didn’t know all winter how it was going to play out.”

Slowes’ wife and two sons will remain in Florida at least through the school year. While leaving Tampa Bay has not been easy, Slowes spent 11 previous years in Washington as the Bullets’ play-by-play announcer.

Extra bases

The Nationals (13-14-1) can avoid the franchise’s first losing spring since 2001 with a victory today against the Mets. … Third baseman Vinny Castilla was booed loudly each time he stepped to the plate. Castilla played for the Devil Rays in 2000 and part of 2001, hitting only eight homers in 109 games.

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