- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2012

CHICAGO — The words were so sweet that Mark DeRosa still remembers the moment he first heard them. It was early November in 2006, and DeRosa was in his car when his agent, Keith Grunewald, called to give him news that brings a smile to his face even more than five years later.

“Congratulations,” Grunewald said. “You’re the second baseman for the Chicago Cubs.”

“I was driving home just thinking, ‘Wow.’ You know?” DeRosa, who’d been mostly a bench player until the 2006 season, recalled Monday.

Thursday afternoon under what is forecast to be a picture-perfect spring day at Wrigley Field, DeRosa will return to Chicago with the Washington Nationals. It’s not the first time he’s been back, but as his eyes light up at the mere mention of his days with the Cubs, it’s easy to see Chicago has a place of honor in the New Jersey native’s heart. It was where his career blossomed.

“It was just such a special two years for me,” he said. “I loved everything about it.”

It’s a fitting place, then, for the Nationals’ 2012 season — one filled with such anticipation and expectation — to begin.

When the Nationals’ 2011 season came to a close and Davey Johnson affirmed his decision to return as manager, his first call was to DeRosa.

The versatile veteran had just spent the better part of two years battling an injury to his left wrist while playing with the San Francisco Giants. There was no way to know what to expect from the 37-year-old, just the fact that in his last fully healthy season he hit .285 with 21 homers and a .376 on-base percentage for the Cubs in 2008.

It didn’t matter. Johnson, who had managed DeRosa in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, told Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo he didn’t care what his status was. He’d take him injured. Just get him on this team.

“When your cellphone rings and it’s Davey Johnson calling, that fires you up,” DeRosa said.

But Johnson wasn’t the only reason DeRosa, who signed for $800,000 in December, was attracted to the Nationals. One of the other reasons will be standing on the mound Thursday in the form of Stephen Strasburg. And another Saturday in Gio Gonzalez. And another Sunday in Jordan Zimmermann.

Having spent the past two seasons watching Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner make mincemeat of opposing offenses in San Francisco, DeRosa knew what he was looking at.

“I go where the pitching is,” he said. “I just always have. That’s been my belief since I was a young kid. Pitching stops good hitting every day of the week. So you might as well put yourself on a team with power arms that give you a chance, right?”

In the spring of 2010, months before the Giants went on one of the most unexpected World Series title runs in recent memory, he said the same thing in an interview. “If we can survive the marathon and stay healthy,” watch out.

“I feel the same way about this team,” he said. “If we can survive 162, not have any major injuries, catastrophic road trips or whatever it may be, and get in? We’re as good as anybody because of our pitching.”

He’s not alone. Of some 70 national media members, 19 predicted the Nationals will make the playoffs. Three, including two from ESPN and one from Yahoo, have them going to the World Series. Rick Sutcliffe of ESPN has them winning the whole thing.

DeRosa, who was brought in as a bench player but is slated to start in left field Thursday as the Nationals recover from several injuries, offers this prediction with one caveat. “I’m not buying into Stephen Strasburg not pitching,” he said, referring to Strasburg’s 160-inning limit for this season and wagging a finger for emphasis.

“I’m not allowing that into my head. He’s pitching, as far as I’m concerned. … Davey and Mike will have a coup on their hands.”

DeRosa’s impact on the Nationals has been swift and significant. Younger players such as Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa gravitated to him. Older players, including Rick Ankiel, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman, love being around him. Johnson obviously is on his side. It still would have to be one of DeRosa’s best sell jobs to get the Nationals to change their mind about shutting down their ace.

Getting to the point where that’s a topic of discussion is a journey that starts Thursday.

“A little luck’s always involved,” DeRosa said. “But stay healthy, play the game the right way and get into the playoffs? We’re a dangerous team.”

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