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Belliard extends his stay in D.C.

The Washington Nationals apparently decided one of their most-marketable commodities approaching the trade deadline actually is more valuable to them for the long haul.

The club and Ronnie Belliard came to terms last night on a two-year, $3.5 million contract extension, a somewhat surprising move considering the attention the veteran infielder was drawing on the trade market and the fact general manager Jim Bowden referred to him as an "asset" upon signing him this spring.

Belliard, though, has become invaluable to the Nationals since signing a minor league deal this spring that paid only $750,000 if he made the Opening Day roster. He has wound up filling in admirably at second base after Cristian Guzman suffered serious injuries while establishing himself as one of the clubs most-consistent players.

The 32-year-old is hitting .305 in 85 games this season (a higher average than anyone else on the roster other than All-Star Dmitri Young) with five homers and 29 RBI. Primarily a second baseman throughout his 10-year career, he has proved his worth by starting at all four infield positions this year, including four games at first base, three at shortstop and one at third base.

"Ronnies very valuable," Bowden said. "Whether hes playing every day at second or whether hes one of the best utility players in the game, we wanted him to be part of our organization for the future. Were glad that he did, too."

Belliard will earn $1.6 million next season and $1.9 million in 2009. The deal includes no incentives.

With both Guzman and Felipe Lopez under contract through 2008, Washingtons starting infield was already set. But Belliard said he has no problem accepting a reserve role with a franchise he has come to appreciate.

"Utility guy, my man. Im just a utility guy here," he said by phone from Philadelphia, where the Nationals open a three-game series tonight against the Phillies.

"This team has been playing hard all year long. They go out there, and Ive said it before, they never quit. It doesnt matter if the game is 10-0; theyre going to play nine innings. And I appreciate that. Theyre all young, and Im kind of a veteran, so I see the future in this team. Theyre going to be better."

Because Belliards contract numbers still are affordable, he conceivably could be traded at some point to a contender in need of a veteran infielder. But Bowden spoke last night about keeping Belliard as the kind of valuable utilityman a championship club needs.

"Were lucky to sign him," Bowden said. "This was the everyday second baseman on the Cardinals when they won the World Series. We were very pleased to get him last spring, and now were pleased to get him for the next two years."

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