- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

JUPITER, Fla. - As Tim Redding walked gingerly off the field, trainer at his side, Manny Acta only could stand near the pitcher’s mound at Roger Dean Stadium with hands on his hips, wondering what else could possibly happen to his tattered starting rotation.

The Washington Nationals manager was relieved to learn later that Redding was forced to leave yesterday’s exhibition against the Florida Marlins only because of back spasms, an injury that likely won’t prevent the right-hander from missing a start.

“Obviously you’ve got to get concerned,” Acta said of Redding calling for a trainer during the fourth inning. “But we have options this year. That’s what gives you a little more peace of mind.”

Indeed, the Nationals feel they are better equipped to handle last-minute surprises now than they were a year ago, when they could barely cobble together a five-man rotation for Opening Day.

With a stable of promising young arms ” a group that includes left-handers John Lannan and Mike O’Connor and right-handers Tyler Clippard, Garrett Mock and Collin Balester ” the Nationals didn’t have to panic when Shawn Hill reported forearm tightness this spring or when John Patterson lost so much life on his fastball that he was released altogether.

“It’s a big difference,” Acta said. “If this would’ve happened last year this late, we really would have been scrambling just to get a guy. … We have a pecking order we can choose from. That’s helpful right now.”

Redding had cruised through his first three innings of work, retiring all nine batters he faced. But as he was warming up for the fourth, his back began to feel tight.

Florida’s first four batters that inning reached base, and when Redding threw a first-pitch ball to Jorge Cantu, catcher Paul Lo Duca noticed the pitcher didn’t look right.

“I was actually going to go out there because he was starting to stretch like this [with his shoulder] in between pitches like something was wrong,” Lo Duca said. “He was really, really good the first three innings, and then the last inning he was short-arming it, and he wasn’t getting extended.”

Redding’s next pitch, which was low and got past Lo Duca, was accompanied by a sharp pain, so he immediately hunched over at the waist and motioned for a trainer.

“I was throwing the ball well, so I just thought maybe it was something I could keep going through and it wasn’t going to flare up,” Redding said. “Unfortunately, with every couple of pitches it kept getting worse and worse, and then it prevented me from continuing to locate my pitches.”

Scheduled to start the Nationals’ third game of the season ” April 2 at Philadelphia ” Redding is hopeful he won’t miss any time. He is scheduled to throw off a bullpen mound tomorrow and then will remain in Florida to pitch in a minor league game Friday while his teammates head north to hold their first workout at Nationals Park.

“Hopefully this doesn’t shelve me for too long, and I can stay on schedule and make my start Friday and then make my first start of the season in Philadelphia,” he said.

Until his fourth-inning collapse yesterday, Redding had been Washington’s most consistent pitcher of the spring. He entered yesterday’s game with a 2.81 ERA, having held the opposition scoreless in three of his four exhibition outings.

“He’s thrown the ball real good with a lot of confidence and good velocity,” Acta said. “He’s done a great job.”

Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire did huddle up after the game to devise a contingency plan in case Redding doesn’t recover in time to start the season. The most likely replacement would be Lannan, who started Saturday against the Atlanta Braves and would need to be bumped back only one day to slide into Redding’s spot.

In a way, that’s a calming thought for the Nationals, who didn’t have that kind of confidence in their minor league pitchers before.

“Somebody else will step in [if Redding is hurt],” Acta said. “We’ll deal with it. We have some options now. We made a lot of progress compared to last year.”

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