- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals optioned outfielder Ryan Church to Class AAA New Orleans yesterday, clearing the way for rookie Brandon Watson to be their starting center fielder. They then added veterans Royce Clayton and Daryle Ward to their 40-man roster.

Church, who was sent down before last night’s exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians along with infielder Brendan Harris and relievers Jason Bergmann and Bill Bray, was widely expected to emerge as the winner of this spring’s center fielder/leadoff hitter competition. But after hitting just .200 (11-for-55) in exhibition play while watching Watson hit .311 (19-for-61) and steal seven bases, Church left himself vulnerable.

“As I told Ryan earlier today, Brandon Watson just beat him out,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “Pure and simple, he beat him out on the baseball field. … You can’t ask [Watson] to do any more than he’s done in this spring training.”

A stunned Church was nearly in tears as he informed equally stunned teammates of his demotion.

“Shocked — only word I can say,” said the 27-year-old, who exactly one year ago was a surprise addition to the roster after outfielder Endy Chavez was sent down. “But I’ll keep my mouth shut, show up and do what I’ve got to do. Hopefully I’ll be up in a couple of weeks.”

Church hit .287 with nine homers and 42 RBI in 102 games as a rookie last year, with most of that production coming before he was injured running into the left-field wall in Pittsburgh to make a game-saving catch June 22. He also spent time on the disabled list with a broken pinkie toe, and that caused some within the organization to question his toughness.

Coupled with his late-season struggles at the plate and Watson’s emergence at New Orleans, Church entered camp knowing his roster spot was not secure. And when Watson impressed the club with both his performance and his willingness to work on bunting and plate discipline, Bowden and other club officials became convinced this move was necessary.

“We just feel like right now [Church] didn’t have a real good spring,” manager Frank Robinson said. “He seems to be pressing a little bit. Also we asked Watson to do a certain number of things to try to make this ballclub, and he did it. He’s gotten better as the spring has gone along, and we just feel he deserves to be rewarded and to be on the ballclub to start the season.”

Church, who already had made plans to share an apartment in Washington with rookie teammate Ryan Zimmerman, sounded determined yesterday to work his way back into the big leagues.

“You can’t go down there and sulk and keep your head down,” he said. “I don’t belong there, I’ll tell you that. I’m just going to go down there, play my [rear] off and show everybody that I don’t belong there.”

Watson, 24, now must prove to the Nationals that he’s ready to play regularly in the majors. Robinson said he will be the regular center fielder, with Marlon Byrd backing up all three outfield positions. A natural leadoff hitter, he will be counted on to get on base at a high clip and set the table for the likes of Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Watson, who hit .175 in a brief major league audition last summer. “I’m just going to continue to work twice as hard now that I’ve got the opportunity. I don’t want to disappoint anybody.”

With the additions of Clayton and Ward to the major league roster, the Nationals’ Opening Day 25 is practically set. Though there are still 29 active players in camp, relievers Kevin Gryboski and Travis Hughes and outfielder Michael Tucker appear certain to miss the cut. The only roster spot still up for grabs is the backup catcher’s job, with Wiki Gonzalez and Alberto Castillo fighting to make the club.

Clayton, 36, will be Washington’s starting shortstop while Cristian Guzman recovers from a right shoulder tear that may require season-ending surgery. A 15-year veteran, Clayton will earn $1 million for making the major league roster.

Like Clayton, Ward, 30, also came to Florida on a minor league deal, one that would have allowed him to become a free agent today had he not been added to the 40-man roster. Though his glove-work at first base has been shaky, he likely has earned his way onto the club by hitting .279 with four homers this spring. Assuming he’s on the Opening Day roster, he will make $700,000.

To make room for both Clayton and Ward on the 40-man roster, injured right-handers Luis Ayala and Brian Lawrence were transferred from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day DL.

Bray, the franchise’s No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, made a strong case for inclusion in the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen. But club officials didn’t want to rush him before he’s ready, especially with veteran lefties Joey Eischen and Mike Stanton already on the team.

Bergmann, too, is highly thought of in the organization and could be one of the first relievers called up from New Orleans. Harris was a long shot to make the squad as a utility infielder.

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