Nationals hire three coaches

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The Washington Nationals took what they hope is a big step toward producing more offense at the plate and on the bases yesterday by naming Mitchell Page as hitting coach, Tony Beasley third base coach, and Davey Lopes first base coach.

The moves nearly fill manager Frank Robinson’s coaching vacancies. Only the position of bullpen coach is left, and a few external issues must be resolved first.

Page, 54, replaces Tom McCraw on Robinson’s staff and will try to resurrect the major leagues’ worst hitting team. Page definitely has his work cut out for him. The Nationals ranked last in batting average (.252), hits (1,367), total bases (2,093), home runs (117), RBI (615), and slugging percentage (.386) last season.

The Nationals hired Page last December to serve as the organization’s roving minor league hitting instructor. Widely respected as one of the game’s top hitting coaches, Page was largely responsible for one of baseball’s best offenses when he served as the St. Louis Cardinals’ hitting coach from 2001 to 2004.

“He’s one of the best hitting coaches in baseball,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “He did a phenomenal job with the Cards as hitting instructor. In our farm system, he did a remarkable job.”

Under Page’s guidance in 2004, the National League champion Cardinals led the league in runs (757), hits (1,544), and slugging percentage (.460) with a lineup that included Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds.

But Page was fired by manager Tony La Russa following the 2004 season after revealing he was an alcoholic. He checked himself into a treatment facility near his home in Oakland, Calif., and spent 28 days in rehab. The Nationals gave Page an opportunity to return to baseball last winter, offering him a position as roving hitting instructor, and he quickly won over many in the organization for his work with minor leaguers.

Lopes, who replaces Don Buford as first base coach, reunites with Robinson. Lopes was Robinson’s first base coach from 1992 to 1994 when Robinson was with the Orioles as their assistant general manager. On Oct.14, Lopes’ contract as the first base coach for the San Diego Padres was not renewed. Lopes rejoined the Padres coaching staff in November 2002 after spending the previous two-plus seasons as the Milwaukee Brewers manager.

Lopes, 60, spent five seasons (1995-99) as the Padres first base coach before accepting the Brewers managerial position. A veteran of nine postseasons — six as a player and three as Padres coach — the four-time NL All-Star second baseman won a World Series with the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers.

Lopes, who stole 557 bases during in 16-year big-league career, brings much-needed expertise where the Nationals need vast improvement. The Nationals had just 45 steals — tied for the second-fewest in baseball.

The 39-year-old Beasley replaces former third base coach Dave Huppert. A native of Fredericksburg, Va., who lives in Bowling Green, Va., Beasley has spent the past five seasons managing in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. Beasley reached the postseason each of those years, producing a 372-258 record at Class AA Altoona (2004-05), Class A Hickory (2002-03) and short-season Class A Williamsport (2001).

“He’s one of the best young baseball minds in the game,” Bowden said. “He can teach infield, outfield, baserunning, hitting and bunting. He’s one of the future stars of this game.”

Beasley joins Robinson’s staff after accepting a position as the New York Yankees roving minor league infield instructor in early December. As a player, Beasley hit .260 in eight minor league seasons as a middle infielder in the Pirates and Orioles farm systems.

Note — Bowden said the club is close to reaching a contract extension with catcher Brian Schneider that would avoid arbitration, but remain far apart on new deals for first basemen Nick Johnson and the newly acquired Alfonso Soriano. Without an agreement in place with Johnson and Soriano, both sides must submit arbitration figures by Tuesday.

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