- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO — It was the first day of spring training in Viera, Fla., and Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson didn’t hesitate to say who he felt was the key to his 2005 pitching staff: Tony Armas Jr.

Nearly three months later, Robinson finally will get a chance to see if he was right. Armas, on the disabled list since Opening Day with a pulled groin, has returned from his minor-league rehab stint and will make his long-awaited season debut Tuesday night in Arizona.

“His time’s up,” Robinson said. “Let’s put him out there and see what he can do.”

The Nationals were counting on Armas to be their No. 2 starter this season, slotting in nicely between ace Livan Hernandez and innings-eater Esteban Loaiza. And until the final week of spring training, the 27-year-old right-hander seemed primed to return to the form he displayed before tearing his rotator cuff in early 2003.

But during his second-to-last start of the exhibition season, Armas pulled his right groin pushing off the mound against the New York Mets. Just like that, the key to the club’s rotation was sent to DL by Opening Day.

The Nationals’ rotation has pitched admirably in Armas’ absence, carrying a 3.74 ERA (fifth-best in baseball) into last night’s game against the San Francisco Giants. But this club believes its chances for long-term success are greatly enhanced with Armas back in the fold, joining Hernandez, Loaiza and emerging star John Patterson.

“I’ve seen what this kid can do when he’s healthy,” Robinson said. “He’s got good stuff. Hitters don’t hit the guy. And with him, Livo, Loaiza, Patterson — that’s pretty good.”

Armas always has been highly regarded, and before blowing out his shoulder in 2003, he seemed on the verge of realizing his potential. In five starts that year, he posted a 2.61 ERA with a sparkling, 23-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire believed at the time that Armas was developing into a No.1 starter. He’ll have to work to get back to that point, but St. Claire said yesterday he still believes Armas can ascend to such lofty heights.

Catcher Brian Schneider said he already was seeing signs of the old Armas during spring training.

“He got his velocity up, he was being real aggressive and getting ahead of hitters,” Schneider said. “His velocity’s always been there. It’s his aggressiveness in going after guys and having better control of his off-speed pitches.”

Armas worked on refining those skills during a month-long rehab stint at Class AAA New Orleans, allowing two earned runs in six innings Thursday night in the last of his five starts with the Zephyrs.

He rejoined the Nationals at SBC Park yesterday, will throw a bullpen session this weekend and then will be activated off the DL in time to start Tuesday, with struggling right-hander Zach Day bumped to the bullpen to make room.

“I just want to be out there and be healthy,” Armas said. “I’m feeling good. I’m doing everything I want to do. … I think I can jump right in. I felt good down there. It’s just a matter of going out there and competing.”

Notes — Jose Vidro was scratched from the starting lineup last night with pain in the back of his left ankle, and the veteran second baseman may be sidelined for a little while. Vidro, who hurt himself sliding into home plate Wednesday night in Los Angeles, is due to undergo an MRI exam today to determine the extent of the damage. He’s expected to miss at least three to five days, though the timetable could change once he’s examined by San Francisco doctor Ken Akizuki. Jamey Carroll started in Vidro’s place last night, batting second. …

Terrmel Sledge underwent surgery in Los Angeles yesterday to repair a ruptured left hamstring, and the club said the outfielder will now be out four-to-six months, meaning the injury could be season-ending. The Nationals originally projected Sledge would be out two-to-three months. …

For the second straight game, Robinson sat both Schneider and left fielder Ryan Church against a left-handed starter. Gary Bennett started behind the plate, with Jeffrey Hammonds in left field.

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