- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

KISSIMMEE, Fla. | The scene repeated itself, almost on a constant loop.

Each day, 8-year-old Anderson Hernandez would find a sun-scorched baseball diamond in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He would meet up with a group of friends and play - and keep playing until his mother’s voice chased him off the field.

“Every day, ‘You have to come eat. Come eat!’ ” Hernandez said, snapping off the last sentence with the same mischievous mimicry he probably had every day he heard it. “I love playing baseball. I’m always going to be in the field, trying to do my best.”

The arithmetic to explain Hernandez, then, is fairly simple: He’s happiest when he’s on a baseball field.

It’s the reason Hernandez went straight from the Washington Nationals‘ roster to winter ball and came right to spring training having logged more than 900 at-bats in the past calendar year, a workload only slightly heavier than what he has done in the past. It’s the reason his few big league stints with the New York Mets were so difficult, and it’s the reason he simply shrugged when manager Manny Acta gave him the first week of the spring off to rest.

The byproduct of it all is showing up this spring as Hernandez inches ever closer to being the Nationals’ starting second baseman.

The 26-year-old, the last of three second baseman Washington acquired in late-season trades last year, appears to have the starting job in his midst. He impressed many in the organization by hitting .333 in a 28-game stretch last fall and has done nothing to take the sheen off that image this spring.

Hernandez raised his spring average to .308 with a 1-for-3 effort Sunday, made a pair of slick plays at second base and nearly turned a double play from his knees that would have meant extra innings in a 1-0 loss to Houston. Despite having appeared in just 63 major league games, he has had the kind of steady, no-fuss camp expected from a veteran.

“He’s playing the same way he played at the end of last season and the way he was playing in winter ball - playing solid defense and giving us good, solid at-bats,” Acta said. “He hasn’t missed a beat. He hasn’t done anything to hurt his chances of being the everyday second baseman here.”

The prime difference between this year and the past three, however, is that Hernandez has a chance. He spent the previous three years with the New York Mets watching his prospect status wane, first blocked by Jose Reyes and then by the acquisitions of Kaz Matsui and Luis Castillo. Hernandez wasn’t getting his shot in New York, and it affected his play In Class AAA.

Last season, his average crashed to .203 - 98 points below where he had been the year before. The Mets finally shipped him to the Nationals in August for Luis Ayala.

“To me, this guy has only had one rough year - last year when he was in Triple-A with the Mets,” Acta said. “He looked like a laid-back guy that, at times, if he was not performing very well, [he] looks kind of like a too-cool type of guy. But he can play. He does things right. He works properly.”

The only variable that has changed between Hernandez this year and Hernandez last year is his playing time. His path to starting in the big leagues isn’t so tough to see anymore, and neither is his energy. When Acta prescribed a week off at the beginning of the spring, Hernandez took it - but made it clear he wasn’t looking for it.

“He told me, ‘I’m going to give you one week because you’ve had so many at-bats,’ ” Hernandez said. “I said, ‘Well, if you think I need it, OK. No problem. You’re the boss.’ ”

Once the regular season arrives, all signs point to Hernandez doing what he has loved since he was 8: playing every day.

“He got a glimpse of what it’s like [to start] last year,” third-base coach Pat Listach said. “He’s not afraid. He’s having fun.”

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