- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — It’s official: The first meaningful pitch thrown in Nationals Park, in front of a national TV audience and thousands of popping flashbulbs, will come from the left arm of a hurler who was working out in the Dominican Republic and waiting for the phone to ring a little more than a month ago.

Manager Manny Acta named Odalis Perez his Opening Night starter yesterday, finalizing a move that had been expected for more than a week but still carries some surprise.

Perez hasn’t posted double-digit victories since 2003 and was 8-11 with a 5.57 ERA for the Kansas City Royals last season, giving him the highest 2007 ERA of the 30 projected Opening Day starters.

The Nationals signed him to an $850,000 minor league contract Feb. 19. Hamstrung by problems getting a work visa from the Dominican Republic, he didn’t even pitch in a major league spring training game until March 15. And even then, his numbers haven’t been spectacular — he’s 0-1 with a 5.23 ERA in two starts.

But because the Nationals like the way he has thrown the ball through most of the spring, Perez is the benefactor of a bizarre sequence of events that included the release of 2007 Opening Day starter John Patterson and the lingering arm troubles of Shawn Hill, who would have been the other likely candidate to make the March 30 start.

“He won more games than any one of our starters last year in the big leagues, he’s the only one on our staff who has won 15 games before and he has pitched well in spring training,” Acta said. “He earned it.”

Perez has made his last two starts on a five-day rotation that would line him up to pitch Opening Day. It will be the first time he has made an Opening Day start — he was the No. 2 starter behind Derek Lowe after winning 15 games for the Dodgers in 2002 — and the significance of opening the new stadium isn’t lost on him.

“That’s history, you know,” he said. “The first pitch, a lot of pictures, all that kind of stuff. It’s a great feeling for me to be able to come to a new franchise and be able to throw the first pitch.”

Acta said Perez had been “Plan B all the way” and likes how the left-hander will match up against the Atlanta Braves, who typically start three left-handed hitters and two switch-hitters.

For Perez, it’s a chance to prove what’s behind the lofty predictions he has made of himself all spring.

“As a professional, you want to be No. 1,” he said. “I don’t think you come to a team to be No. 5 or to be just somebody on the pitching roster. No, no, no, no, no. Everyone wants to be No. 1. This is the opportunity I’m getting, and I’ve got to take advantage of that.”

Roster filling out

There are only a few spots still available on the Opening Day roster after the team’s latest series of moves.

The Nationals purchased the contract of left-hander Ray King, re-assigned starter Mike O’Connor to their minor league camp and sent Rule 5 pick Matt Whitney back to the Indians. That trimmed the number of players in Washington’s camp to 32 and likely means there is one bullpen spot open (between Joel Hanrahan and Chris Schroder) and one in the rotation (between Matt Chico and John Lannan). Assuming Johnny Estrada starts the year on the disabled list, Wil Nieves will be the likely backup catcher, and Wily Mo Pena’s torn oblique muscle means both Willie Harris and Rob Mackowiak presumably will start the season in the majors.

“We don’t have any [open] spots,” Acta said. “We’re just not ready to announce [the roster] yet.”

Extra bases

Lannan was impressive in a 4-1 win over the Braves yesterday, giving up one run on three hits in six innings. Acta hinted Friday that Chico likely would get the last starting spot, but Lannan is confident he has made an impression.

“It’s not going to be the whole five for the whole year,” he said. …

Both Paul Lo Duca and Dmitri Young got three at-bats in an accelerated minor league camp game. Lo Duca likely will catch back-to-back games for the first time today and tomorrow. …

Hill said his right arm had some soreness after throwing live batting practice Friday, but he is still on track to pitch in tomorrow’s accelerated camp game.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide