- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Top prospect Michael Hinckley was among three pitchers the Washington Nationals sent to the minors yesterday.

Hinckley, a left-hander, was optioned to Class AA Harrisburg, right-hander Josh Karp was optioned to Class AAA New Orleans and right-handed reliever Dan Smith was re-assigned to the Nationals’ minor league camp.

None of the cuts came as a major surprise since the pitching staff is nearly set. The Nationals lack a left-handed starter, so it seemed Hinckley would have a good shot at making the roster. However, the 22-year-old struggled in three Grapefruit League appearances, allowing nine runs on 14 hits in six innings. In a March 6 game against the New York Mets, Hinckley gave up five runs in the first inning alone.

“I don’t like to see anyone struggle. That’s kind of a tough lesson,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “I told [Hinckley] to look at this as a positive experience being here. Don’t worry about the results. It’s probably better that he didn’t pitch well because we probably would have kept him a little longer around here, and that may not have been a good decision.”

Last year between Class A Brevard County and Class AA Harrisburg, Hinckley finished 11-4 with a 2.76 ERA and was named the Montreal Expos’ minor league pitcher of the year for the second straight season.

“I think he was a little too excited [in spring training]. The adrenaline was flowing, and he was trying to throw it through the backstop rather than trying to get it by the hitter,” Robinson said.

Karp, 25, had yet to appear in a game, and his departure was only a matter of time. Smith, meanwhile, had expected to be sent down but vowed to return.

“Truthfully, at this point for me I need regular work,” Smith said. “To get your rhythm back and to get a feel back for the mound is a lot tougher to do over here in these games than it is to do over there, where there’s no scrutiny or pressure. You have to understand the reality of everything and be honest with yourself, or you’re not going to get better. I’ll be back. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Smith pitched two innings and allowed three runs on three hits this spring. He blew a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Thursday, surrendering a game-winning, two-run homer to Cleveland’s Aaron Boone in the Nationals’ 3-1 loss.

Ohka in control

Pitcher Tomo Ohka retired all nine Los Angeles Dodgers he faced before yesterday’s game was called because of rain in the bottom of the third inning. Ohka, who says he has six pitches in his repertoire, kept Dodgers hitters off-balance and needed just 29 pitches.

“So far, good,” Ohka said of his two spring outings. “I threw a couple pitches high, so I don’t think my pitching is perfect.”

Ohka has allowed just one hit in six innings this spring. He even helped at the plate yesterday with a run-scoring single to right off Dodgers starter Edwin Jackson.

“He’s a pretty decent little hitter up there. He puts a bat on the ball. He’ll get his few hits,” Robinson said. “He can hit decently. He’s not an automatic out.”

In a split-squad game against the Cleveland Indians in Winter Haven on Thursday, Ohka retired the first six batters before Jose Hernandez lined a single to left. He pitched three scoreless innings, struck out three and walked none.

If Ohka continues to perform at a high level, he will have a remarkable comeback story. The Japanese right-hander missed 85 games last season after his right forearm was fractured by Carlos Beltran’s line drive June 10 in Kansas City.

Incredibly, Ohka returned to the mound Sept. 15 against the Florida Marlins with a plate in his arm. The plate remains, and he has shown no ill-effects from the injury.

Beltran having surgery

Reliever Francis Beltran will undergo ligament-replacement surgery today in Birmingham, Ala. Noted sports orthopedic specialist James Andrews will perform the procedure to reconstruct Beltran’s ulnar-collateral ligament, which was injured early in spring training.

The Nationals placed Beltran on the 60-day DL, but his season probably is over.

Beltran, 25, was acquired from the Chicago Cubs as part of a four-team deal that sent shortstop Orlando Cabrera to Boston and Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs. Beltran went 2-2 with a 5.87 ERA in 56 games over two seasons with the Cubs and Montreal Expos.

Extra bases

Robinson doesn’t expect injured reliever Claudio Vargas (shoulder), who hasn’t pitched this spring, to be on the Opening Day roster. … The rainout will not affect the Nationals’ rotation. John Patterson will start today’s split-squad game against the Astros in Kissimmee, while staff ace Livan Hernandez will start against the Florida Marlins at Space Coast Stadium in Viera.

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