- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

VIERA, Fla.

It was NASCAR day at Space Coast Stadium yesterday, and one of the premier attractions was the Joe Gibbs Racing Team.

Yes, Redskins and Nationals synergy, though it was not intentional and there were no references to Racing Joe’s football team on the premises.

“We’re not allowed to sell Redskins stuff in the trailer,” said a woman who was selling all kinds of Joe Gibbs souvenirs from the Joe Gibbs Racing Team trailer.

You could, however, buy collector models of the Interstate Batteries car. Maybe the Nationals should sponsor a car on the Nextel Cup circuit — perhaps an Edsel or a Yugo would be an appropriate model.

With two weeks left before Opening Day at RFK Stadium, Nationals manager Manny Acta is doing his best to bring this bucket of bolts of a baseball team to the starting line. He clearly was rattled yesterday when one of his tires blew out — Larry Broadway was demoted to Class AAA.

“We gave him a fair shot,” said Acta, who was as subdued as he has been since spring training opened. “But we had to make a decision.”

That decision was Broadway, despite batting .333 (but with just one extra-base hit) in 21 at-bats, didn’t provide enough of what the Nationals want at first base. It looks more and more like, whatever it is the Nats are looking for, they hope to find it in Dmitri Young. Young has hit, can hit and is hitting, though Travis Lee is also hitting well and is a more viable option defensively at first base.

It is safe to say Broadway was an Acta guy. Acta knew of Broadway from the manager’s earlier stint as a coach with the Expos and had made it apparent early in spring training that he believed in his abilities.

Young, though, is a Jim Bowden guy, brought to camp this spring by the Nationals’ general manager. Bowden and Young were together in Cincinnati for four years.

That isn’t to say there is a strain between Bowden and Acta. It happens in every organization with all kinds of players. Everyone has favorites — which brings up Chris Snelling.

The former Mariners prospect — Bowden obtained him in a steal of a trade that dumped $12 million of Jose Vidro’s $16 million contract into Seattle’s lap — has been hitting well in spring training.

Snelling is batting .286 with three home runs and 10 RBI in 28 at-bats (he went 0-for-2 in yesterday’s 3-1 loss to the Florida Marlins). He has stayed healthy and is making things interesting in Viera, so much so that before yesterday’s game Bowden said he was in the mix for the starting left field job.

Well, maybe. When asked about Snelling and left field, Acta said Snelling has “played well,” but Ryan Church “is the guy.” Again, Acta is familiar with Church from the manager’s time as a coach with the Expos. Bowden inherited Church. He brought Snelling here.

As far as Snelling’s status, Acta said, “First he has to make the team. Then we will see.”

Same page? Bowden is on the comics pages, and Acta is reading the horoscopes.

What about the possibility of moving Church to center?

“We said all along we are going with Nook [Logan] in center field,” Acta said.

The decision, then, in the outfield and at first base is this: Do they want to offer this jalopy of a starting pitching staff defensive help, which would mean Logan in center, Church in left and Lee at first base? Or do they want to try to score enough runs to stay in ballgames, offering their pitching staff offensive help by getting Young, Snelling and Church in the starting lineup?

They should be scared about scoring runs — they only have to make up 172 RBI and 219 runs scored (Alfonso Soriano’s and Nick Johnson’s numbers) from a team last year that finished in last place in the National League East.

“Depending on the position, we’re going to try to balance it out a little bit,” Acta said. “We are thinking more about our defense up the middle, with [Cristian] Guzman, [Felipe] Lopez and Logan. Everyone here knows Logan is in for his defense. He’s going to need to hit. Our corner guy, we want a bat, obviously.”

But at what point does defense become a luxury if you can’t score runs?

You can have the best driver on the NASCAR circuit, but it won’t do you much good if he runs out of gas before getting to the finish line. The Nationals need all the gas they can find this year, and Chris Snelling is a well worth drilling.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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