- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Forgive Potomac Nationals first baseman Josh Whitesell if he sometimes frets about long bus rides in the minor leagues.

During the fall of his freshman year at Loyola Marymount, Whitesell was in a car accident and broke his back. The injury led to spondylolysis, a condition caused by a fractured vertebrae in the lower back.

“I had to wear a brace for 10 weeks and rehab that,” Whitesell said. “Ever since then I’ve had to do abs and lower back [exercises] to maintain my flexibility or I’ll feel it. Especially with our long bus rides. I’ll wake up the next morning and feel a little crick in my back.”

The way Whitesell is hitting this season, opposing pitchers in the Carolina League are not looking forward to him coming to town, either. After going hitless in the first three games, he has been on a tear. Whitesell leads Potomac with a .349 average and 11 RBI.

“I had a rough first series,” Whitesell said. “I settled down and realized that it’s a long season and there’s going to be a lot of at-bats and if I just keep working hard the hits would come.”

The Expos drafted Whitesell in the sixth round in 2003 out of Loyola Marymount. After going to college as a pitcher and designated hitter, he had shoulder surgery. He continued to pitch, but it became clear his path to professional baseball was with his bat. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Whitesell exudes plenty of raw power.

After swatting 21 homers in his first 162 professional games before this season, Whitesell hit his first of this year on April 18 — a towering blast to right-center that easily cleared both advertisement-laden fences at Pfitzner Stadium.

“I’ve been swinging the bat better the past few games,” Whitesell said the next day. “I knew it would eventually come but if I tried to hit one that would put too much pressure on me. I just need to relax and take good swings.”

He and teammate Kory Casto hit together every day during batting practice, and the left-handed hitting duo can put on a powerful display. The pair have quite a bit in common. They played in the West Coast Conference in college (Casto was at Portland) and actually were teammates on a wooden bat summer league team in California after their freshmen seasons.

After both were picked in the 2003 draft, Whitesell and Casto were roommates last season at Class A Savannah and share an apartment this season about a mile-and-a-half from Pfitzner Stadium.

“It’s definitely nice to have someone you know and can associate with,” Casto said. “It’s tough for a guy moving up if you don’t know anybody. It’s great just to have somebody to talk to or go to the field early with. I think we are helping each other by pushing each other along.”

Farm notes — While the Nationals have a long way to go to return their minor league system to the elite level it was with the Expos in the 1990s, Washington has been able to find bullpen help at Class AAA New Orleans. Injuries to relievers Antonio Osuna and T.J. Tucker have given Gary Majewski and Hector Carrasco a chance to return to the majors after opening the season with the Zephyrs.

Majewski and Carrasco have made the most of their opportunities, combining for nine innings of scoreless relief.

“There’s definitely some depth,” said Adam Wogan, the Nationals’ director of player development. “It’s a quality staff at New Orleans, and there are other guys there who can help. It’s a situation where you hope you don’t have to reach down because you want to keep everyone healthy, but it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to need up to 20 pitchers in a season.”

A third member of the Zephyrs staff — 6-foot-11 right-hander Jon Rauch — joined the Nationals yesterday. He will replace Joe Horgan (21.00 ERA). Rauch, like John Patterson, is a former uber-prospect who has yet to live up to the hype.

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