- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals closed up camp at Space Coast Stadium yesterday with their Opening Day roster set.

The club re-assigned veteran infielder Carlos Baerga to their minor league camp before yesterday’s game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, instead choosing to keep rookie infielder Tony Blanco as the 25th man.

The decision, which had become obvious in recent days, underscores Washington’s desire to go with a young team this season. Blanco, 23, is 13 years younger than Baerga and will be one of 10 players on the Nationals’ roster with less than three years of major league service. The club’s average age is 28.6.

“Blanco’s a young guy, and they don’t have that kind of guy in their organization right now,” Baerga said. “They don’t want to throw it away and just give this guy away. So they told me that was the reason they let me go. I understand the situation.”

Baerga, a three-time All-Star with Cleveland a decade ago, was trying to make the Nationals as a nonroster invitee. He hit just .229 with one RBI in 19 games this spring, but the switch-hitter believes he still can be a productive bench player and clubhouse leader.

If Baerga can find a job with another club in the next few days, it appears likely he will refuse the Nationals’ re-assignment and move on.

“I still believe that I can help a team,” he said. “I’m going to try to stay in shape. I’m going to call my agent to make some calls and see if there’s anything available. … It can happen. I’ve seen it before. I’m a positive guy. I’ll come back, if not this year then next year.”

Blanco, acquired this winter from the Reds in the Rule 5 draft, must remain on Washington’s 25-man roster all season or else be offered back to Cincinnati. Based on the way the corner infielder hit the ball this spring — a .282 average and six RBI — he appears to have a good chance of sticking despite having no experience above Class AA.

“I’m so excited,” Blanco said. “This is my first time in the majors. I knew there was a chance. I’m thankful that [general manager Jim Bowden] brought me here from Cincinnati. I’m very grateful to him.”

Cordero the closer

Chad Cordero earned his second save of the spring with a scoreless ninth inning in yesterday’s 3-2 win over the Devil Rays. The 23-year-old will get plenty more opportunities to close out games beginning Monday.

Though manager Frank Robinson has not announced his bullpen plans yet, a club source confirmed yesterday Cordero will be the full-time closer once the regular season begins.

Robinson’s apparent decision reveals the strong impression Cordero made this spring by allowing three runs in 91/3 innings. The manager had said when camp started he likely would open the season with a closer-by-committee in order to limit the pressure on Cordero.

But the unflappable right-hander from California apparently has convinced Robinson he can handle the responsibility, both physically and mentally.

“Mentally, I’m always there, no matter what the situation is,” Cordero said. “It’ll be good to get the call, if it is me. I’ll be the first one for the Nationals.”

Good Day for Zach

Zach Day allowed two runs on five hits and walked three in his final start of the spring, but the right-hander also struck out six in six innings of work. The right-hander, who was bumped up from the No. 5 spot in the rotation to No. 2 after Tony Armas Jr. went on the disabled list, will make his next appearance Wednesday at Philadelphia.

“It kind of happened like that a couple of years ago, when I ended up throwing the second game against Atlanta,” said Day, who after a slow start finished the spring with a 2-2 record and 3.43 ERA. “So it’s not something I haven’t done before. It’s something I’m looking forward to, that’s for sure.”

Extra bases

Nick Johnson hit leadoff for the second straight day and enjoyed better results this time. The first baseman went 1-for-4 with a solo homer in the sixth inning. Robinson said he still hasn’t decided on a leadoff hitter for Opening Day, but it’s widely believed left fielder Brad Wilkerson will get the call. …

Outfielder Terrmel Sledge did not play after an examination by team doctor Bruce Thomas revealed a minor left calf strain, suffered the day before against the Marlins. Sledge is day-to-day, but he took batting practice and reported no problems. …

Right fielder Jose Guillen missed the game with flu-like symptoms. His status is also day-to-day.

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