- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

MIAMI | When September isn’t about pennant races, it’s about experimentation. For teams like the Washington Nationals, who haven’t been in contention since the second week of April, these final weeks provide an opportunity to look at youngsters and gauge whether they deserve a more significant look next spring.

So forget for a moment the outcome of Saturday night’s game against the Florida Marlins: a rain-delayed, 11-3 loss before what remained of an announced crowd of 38,214 at Land Shark Stadium. Instead, do as Nationals coaches and front office officials surely did and evaluate players’ performance on an individual basis instead of a collective one.

By those standards, several pertinent conclusions could be drawn:

• Marco Estrada isn’t particularly effective as a big league starter and may not get another opportunity to take the mound five days from now.

• Ross Detwiler still has the stuff to be a successful pitcher and is likely to take Estrada’s place in the rotation later this week.

• Ian Desmond may not prove to be a Hall of Fame shortstop when it’s all said and done. But two games into his big league career, he looks like the second coming of Honus Wagner.

• Justin Maxwell, perhaps down to his last shot, made a pretty strong case for himself with a pair of towering homers.

• Logan Kensing has been given more opportunities than just about any other reliever in baseball to prove he belongs in the majors. And he has yet to give any reason he deserves more.

All five of those players, along with several others on Washington’s expanded September roster, spent considerable time at Class AAA Syracuse this season. Thus the Nationals as a whole were overmatched Saturday by a Marlins club still hanging on for dear life in the NL East and wild-card races and thus still playing its regulars.

Since his team is 32 games out of first place, Washington interim manager Jim Riggleman knows this is an opportune time to take a look at some youngsters and find out how they stack up against big league competition. The results Saturday were mixed.

Estrada (0-1) was pumped-up about his first career start, hoping to make a better impression than he did last September during 11 forgettable relief appearances. But the 26-year-old Californian was done in by a lack of command (three walks) and a couple of bombs by cleanup hitter Jorge Cantu (who clubbed a three-run homer in the first and a two-run double in the third).

Cantu’s second hit ended Estrada’s night after only 2 1/3 innings, hardly a ringing endorsement for his future as a starter. Riggleman was noncommittal after the game about the plan five days from now, but he suggested earlier in the afternoon that Detwiler may take Estrada’s place in the rotation Friday in New York.

Detwiler, who struggled during his 10-start tryout earlier this season, came back strong out of the bullpen Saturday, tossing two scoreless innings and positioning himself to slide into the rotation.

The former first-round draft pick was joined by two other top prospects who dazzled in this lopsided loss: Desmond and Maxwell.

Coming off a sparkling debut game Thursday in which he homered and drove in four runs, Desmond again was brilliant. He went 4-for-4 with two doubles and a walk and is now 6-for-8 with a 1.500 slugging percentage as a big leaguer. He has yet to put the ball in play without making solid contact. And he made a spectacular play in the field, diving to his right to snag a grounder and then firing to third from the seat of his pants to force out a runner.

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