- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

BRADENTON, Fla. — It’s early, and spring training games have only just begun, but Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson is beginning to formulate a starting rotation for the season.

The Nationals entered camp with only two spots locked up: ace Livan Hernandez and John Patterson. Veteran Brian Lawrence figured to be a lock for the No. 3 slot, but that plan fell apart when Lawrence underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder this week.

With Lawrence out of the picture, five right-handers are battling for three spots: newcomer Pedro Astacio, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch. And Robinson has an idea how that competition ultimately will play out.

“Out of those guys, I’m probably looking at Armas, Ortiz and now Astacio before everyone else,” he said.

Astacio, signed on Monday to a one-year, $700,000 contract with incentives, comes into camp a step ahead of the rest of the pack, Robinson acknowledged.

“Yes, he does,” the manager said. “That’s why we got him. Lawrence was ahead [until his injury]. Right now, Astacio with his experience and know-how, you have to look at him behind [Hernandez and Patterson]. And then Armas and Ortiz and those guys would follow behind.”

Armas and Ortiz also would appear to have a leg up on Drese (who is not fully back from shoulder surgery) and Rauch (who has proved effective as a long reliever and swing man in the past).

Vidro ready to play

Second baseman Jose Vidro will make his first game appearance of the spring today when the Nationals play the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Vidro, coming back from two years of knee injuries, has been taking a cautious approach to spring training, but he feels he’s ready for game action.

He also has told Robinson he wants to play more back-to-back games this year after rarely going on consecutive days last spring. The tentative plan is for Vidro to again be in the lineup tomorrow and Monday.

“I don’t look at it as taking it easy with him, I look at it as taking it slow,” Robinson said. “I want him to be healthy throughout the year. He wants to play more games in a row. This is a good sign.”

Robinson said he will try to bat Vidro near the top of the lineup to help him get more at-bats.

Denney impresses

Kyle Denney found himself on the mound starting yesterday’s exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates only because scheduled starter Tony Armas Jr. had to be pulled late so he could report to the Venezuelan national team for the World Baseball Classic.

Denney, a non-roster invitee in camp, made the most of the opportunity. The 28-year-old right-hander allowed just one hit over three innings and kept the Pirates off-balance.

Strong performances aside, Denney knows he has no shot at making the Nationals’ Opening Day roster. After six seasons in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system, he’s just hoping to leave an impression on the Nationals.

“To be honest with you, any impression I can make is fine,” Denney said. “Whether they want to keep me in camp a little longer or whether I have to go down to [Class AAA] New Orleans, hey, that’s OK. But hopefully I can turn some heads, and if they need somebody down the road, maybe they’ll remember me.”

Extra bases

With utility man Robert Fick due to undergo surgery Monday to remove bone chips in his right elbow, Robinson said he may be more inclined to carry a traditional backup catcher on his Opening Day roster. If that’s the case, veteran Mike DiFelice appears to be the favorite over fellow non-roster invitee Wiki Gonzalez. Gonzalez has left the club to play for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic; DiFelice opted not to play for Italy in part because he’s trying to win the Nationals’ job. …

Hernandez, coming back from offseason right knee surgery, threw live batting practice yesterday for the first time this spring. He’s on schedule to make his first game appearance Thursday. …

Regular-season single-game tickets, including the April 11 home opener, go on sale at 10 a.m. today at the RFK Stadium box office, online at nationals.com and over the phone at 888/632-6287.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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