- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

VERO BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals placed pitcher Tony Armas on the 15-day disabled list yesterday with a pulled right groin, disrupting the club’s starting rotation six days before Opening Day.

Armas, who spent the last six weeks proving to the Nationals that his surgically repaired right shoulder was no longer a concern, will miss at least his first two scheduled starts.

“They said two starts. That, to me, means three to four starts,” general manager Jim Bowden said before last night’s exhibition game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “It’s only a Grade 1 groin pull. We don’t want it to become Grade 2, Grade 3 or Grade 4, so let’s just fix it right now. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Armas’ place in the rotation goes to right-hander John Patterson, who appeared destined for the bullpen after losing out to Zach Day for the No. 5 spot. Day, however, will be bumped to the No. 2 position to keep the rest of the staff on schedule and will make his season debut April 6 at Philadelphia.

Esteban Loaiza and Tomo Ohka remain the Nos. 3 and 4 starters, respectively, behind staff ace Livan Hernandez and Day. Patterson’s first start won’t come until April 10, so he will spend the first week of the season in the bullpen.

“I don’t want to take two guys out of the rotation right now,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “I don’t want to do that in spring training. I’d rather just slide Zach in.”

Though his numbers (0-1, 6.39 ERA in five starts) didn’t necessarily reflect it, Armas was having an encouraging spring. The 27-year-old reported no pain in his right shoulder and appeared to have recovered from the May 2003 rotator cuff and labrum surgery that sidetracked his career.

But while throwing a high fastball to Mets second baseman Kaz Matsui in the first inning of Sunday’s game in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Armas felt a twinge in his groin. He finished the inning but did not return. St. Claire speculated that the right-hander, who was working on closing up his stride to the plate, might have opened up too much on the pitch in question.

The team did not draw any immediate conclusions about Armas’ condition, but it became obvious to manager Frank Robinson yesterday that he would not be ready to start the season.

“It was a no-brainer really,” Robinson said.

This will be the fourth straight season Armas has spent time on the DL. He missed 23 days with a lower back strain in 2002, was out more than five months in 2003 because of the shoulder injury and did not debut last year until June 1.

Given all that, Armas was predictably discouraged by yesterday’s developments.

“He always takes it hard,” Robinson said. “He’s very eager to get out there, and I can understand that after what happened the last two seasons. He’s a gamer. He feels like he can be out there no matter what. …

“This is nothing I would call serious. He should be back in a short period of time, and hopefully that will be it for the year.”

Armas is eligible to come off the DL on April 12, which means he will miss at least his first two scheduled starts. Even if the groin is healed by then, Armas likely will need some time to work his arm back into shape. He has not pitched more than 32/3 innings in a game this spring.

If there is a bright side to Armas’ injury, it’s that Robinson and Bowden will have a little easier time setting their final 11-man pitching staff. With Patterson now in the rotation, three right-handers (Jon Rauch, T.J. Tucker and Gary Majewski) appear to be left in the running for the final bullpen spot.

Patterson, however, will face pressure to succeed as the No. 5 starter. The 27-year-old has had an inconsistent spring. In Sunday’s game, for instance, he was tagged for four runs and seven hits in three innings despite striking out eight.

“It’s unfortunate for Tony to get hurt,” said Patterson, who missed 2 months last season with a severe groin injury. “Hopefully I can just step into that role for however long he is on the DL, pitch good and help the team win.”

Patterson will need to win over some club officials, who don’t believe he has shown enough progress this spring.

“He’s showing signs in short bursts of very good stuff,” Robinson said. “But he has not given me the long-range things a starter needs. Hopefully he will put it together.”

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