- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — It appears Rule 5 pickup Tony Blanco will make the Washington Nationals roster.

In fact, Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden will wager his job that Blanco will be wearing a Nationals uniform Monday for the season-opener in Philadelphia.

“If we don’t keep Blanco, I should resign and go home because then we totally missed what we’re trying to do here if he doesn’t make the team,” Bowden said. “This guy’s bat potential is as good as anybody we have. If he doesn’t make this team I should seriously resign and go home. He’s 23 years old, and we’re trying to build for the future? We can’t let a bat like that go.”

Blanco and three-time All-Star Carlos Baerga are battling for the final spot on Washington’s 25-man roster. Essentially, it comes down to potential vs. experience.

“That’s the thing, you have to have guys with experience, and I feel I’ve been one of the best pinch hitters in the game for the last four years,” said Baerga, 36. “It’s a hard decision to make, but you want to have an experienced guy against [Eric] Gagne or one of the best closers in the game.”

Both Baerga and Blanco, who entered yesterday’s game with a .303 batting average in spring training, primarily have played third base. However, Baerga came on for Jose Vidro at second in yesterday’s victory over the Atlanta Braves.

Nationals manager Frank Robinson said he expects to make his final decision on the roster Saturday, and Blanco said he has done enough this spring for it to be him.

“I’m ready for this because I’m a lot more comfortable at home plate,” said Blanco, who hit 29 home runs last year in the Cincinnati Reds’ organization between Class A Potomac and Class AA Chattanooga. “I feel my spot is at home plate, and anything close, I’m going to hit it. I just need more at-bats, and we’ll see what’s coming up.”

Ready for Opening Day

In his final spring training start, Nationals ace Livan Hernandez reinforced Robinson’s decision to name the right-hander the club’s Opening Day starter.

Hernandez helped the Nationals snap a six-game losing streak with eight solid innings, allowing just one run on six hits in a no-decision against the Braves.

Hernandez struck out eight and walked none and appeared to get stronger as the game wore on; he struck out three in the seventh and eighth innings.

“Everything is together, and I’m ready for the next game, next Monday for Opening Day,” Hernandez said. “For me, the real baseball starts next Monday [in Philadelphia].”

Hernandez, last year’s National League Silver Slugger winner after leading major league pitchers with eight extra base hits and 10 RBI, also pitched in at the plate.

With the Braves leading 1-0 on a Raul Mondesi home run in the fourth inning, Hernandez executed a perfect sacrifice bunt down the first-base line to score Ryan Church and tie the game in the fifth. He then gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead in the seventh with a two-out double off Adam Bernero that scored Gary Bennett.

“I like to hit, and that was important for me because there are a lot of situations in a game when you want to hit a double,” Hernandez said. “You can also take care of your own game, too.”

Star of the game

Outfielder J.J. Davis may have earned a roster spot with a dramatic game-winning home run. With the game looking like it was going to end in a tie, Davis crushed a Kevin Barry fastball over the left-field fence for a 4-3 victory in 11 innings.

“We played an extra four innings when I got in there [in the seventh inning], and it was hot and I was like, ‘Oh man, we’ve got to get this game over with,’” said Davis, who entered the game with a team-leading .414 batting average and .724 slugging percentage.

Ohka starting Sunday

Tomo Ohka will start Sunday’s final exhibition game against the New York Mets at RFK Stadium. In 19 innings, Ohka is 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA and 12 strikeouts with six walks. Ohka has allowed just five runs and two homers in five spring appearances. Ohka also pitched three scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in a March 14 rainout that didn’t count toward his spring stats.

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