- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

CINCINNATI | With the Washington Nationals’ window to sign No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg inside of 48 hours, things are heating up right on schedule.

The team said it made Strasburg a record-breaking offer for a draft pick, surpassing the $10.5 million deal the Chicago Cubs gave Mark Prior in 2001. But it remains to be seen whether the San Diego State right-hander will agree to the major league contract as Tuesday’s 12:01 a.m. deadline approaches.

Nationals president Stan Kasten told the Associated Press there is a “very real possibility, with 48 hours to go, that Stephen may choose not to sign with us.”

“We remain hopeful. But… all of baseball history, both long-standing and our own recent history with Jordan Zimmermann, has cautioned us about the risks inherent in signing any young player, particularly pitchers,” Kasten said.

Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, has compared the 21-year-old on several occasions to some of the top international pitchers to reach the major leagues in recent years, most notably Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who signed a six-year, $52 million deal with the Boston Red Sox in 2006. It’s believed Boras is seeking a contract along those lines, though industry observers expect the final figure to be well below that.

If the Nationals do not sign Strasburg, they would receive the No. 2 pick in next year’s draft in addition to their regular first-round selection. They could pick Strasburg again, but they would need his permission to do so.

Belliard surging

The difference between the Ronnie Belliard the Nationals saw in the first half of the season and the one they’re seeing now is unmistakable.

In the first half, Belliard was flailing at curveballs. Now he’s stinging line drives.

He went weeks without a pinch hit before the All-Star break. He’s 4-for-8 with two walks in his past 10 pinch-hit appearances.

So what has changed? Interim manager Jim Riggleman started playing Belliard more, repeatedly going out of his way to praise the second baseman he had dealt with briefly in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system. In addition to giving the 34-year-old the regular playing time needed to stay sharp at the plate, he has helped Belliard move past the discontentment Riggleman felt he was playing with early in the year.

Belliard was hitting .327 in 21 post-break games heading into Saturday night’s matchup in Cincinnati, when he he went 2-for-5 with an RBI and two runs scored. He has started 12 of those games and was batting second Saturday. In the first half, Belliard played 51 games but started just 20, and it showed at the plate: He hit .184 with a .234 on-base percentage and a .282 slugging percentage.

But under Riggleman, he has thrived.

“Ronnie likes to play, and I think his competitive juices told him, ‘I’m a better player than somebody who’s out there playing’ - whether it was Anderson [Hernandez] or whether it was [Alberto] Gonzalez or whoever,” Riggleman said. “I think Belly would’ve preferred to move on to another club at that time, so he would’ve played more somewhere else. He probably was unhappy.”

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