- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Jerome Williams didn’t want to go so far as to call yesterday’s start make-or-break, but it might as well have been for the Washington Nationals right-hander. Unimpressive in spring training to date, the 25-year-old had seen himself fall behind the rest of the pack in the race for a spot in the Opening Day rotation.

After tossing four shutout innings yesterday against the New York Mets, Williams is very much back in the picture, joining Jason Bergmann, Levale Speigner and Tim Redding (who also came on strong in his last outing) in the hunt for the final spot in Washington’s rotation.

“He’s making it interesting,” manager Manny Acta said after his team trounced the Mets 13-1. “It was the same thing with Redding the other night. They threw the ball good and made a case for themselves. And they’ve done that the last chances they’ve had.”

Williams had nearly fallen out of contention after getting tagged for six runs in 11/3 innings against the Atlanta Braves in his first spring start, then getting relegated to bullpen duty his next time out. But he reversed course yesterday, jumping ahead of opposing hitters and keeping the Mets from scoring a run in his four innings of work.

“The first two [outings] were pretty rough for me, not getting ahead of hitters and getting guys on base,” Williams said. “Just coming out today, I was trying to turn it around, get into that groove. So when we do break camp, I’m ready.”

Williams couldn’t help but wonder whether he was meant to pitch well yesterday. After getting bumped from his scheduled start Friday because of a rainout in Winter Haven, Fla., he realized his outing now fell on the six-year anniversary of the death of his mother, Deborah.

“Today was a special day for me,” he said.

Williams said he tried not to approach this start as his last opportunity to win a job, but in truth, that probably was the case. With time running out before the Nationals head north, Acta is going to have to start paring down the list of contenders soon. The manager admitted the race could now go down to the final days of the spring.

“I wouldn’t say the last day or two,” he said. “But it’s going to go into the last week.”

Young on the way?

The Nationals are planning to promote Dmitri Young from minor league camp tomorrow, adding a third candidate for the starting first base job into the mix.

Young has been working himself into playing shape with the organization’s minor leaguers and was impressive at the plate in his one-time audition with the big-league club Thursday, going 2-for-3 with a homer and two RBI against Los Angeles Dodgers ace Jason Schmidt.

The 33-year-old has been back playing in minor league games the last two days, and he’ll remain there today. But as general manager Jim Bowden said: “He’ll be over here soon. He’s not here right now because we want him to max out his at-bats. But we’re evaluating on a daily basis, all of them. Whoever wants it, it’s all a competition.”

Young will join veteran Travis Lee and rookie Larry Broadway in the three-way competition for the starting first base job. Though the defensively challenged Young may seem at a disadvantage to the other two slick fielders, his potent bat may override everything.

“We’re looking for offense,” Acta said. “We have to find some type of balance on the defense and offense. Let’s not forget, we’re not only missing Nick [Johnson from the lineup]. We don’t have [Alfonso] Soriano either. So we need some offense, too.”

Extra bases

Ryan Church made his first start in center field this spring in yesterday’s game. Church, who Acta says will be his starting left fielder, was getting some work over there because he’ll likely be needed to fill in for Nook Logan on occasion. Acta said Chris Snelling also could play center field if needed. …

Alex Escobar hit two home runs in a Class AAA game yesterday in Viera, Fla., but the outfielder still hasn’t recovered from his dislocated right shoulder and isn’t ready to play in the field. Acta said there’s almost no chance Escobar will make the Opening Day roster at this point. “He’s not making that much progress with his throwing program,” Acta said. “At this point, I don’t think he’s going to be able to be with us on Opening Day.”

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