- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

BALTIMORE — The Washington Nationals’ starting rotation, perhaps the club’s biggest question mark entering the season, suffered another setback yesterday when No. 3 starter Pedro Astacio was placed on the disabled list with a strained right forearm.

Astacio, who asked out of his start against the Baltimore Orioles after only two innings, was expectd to have an MRI last night in Washington. The club hopes to have a diagnosis this morning, but general manager Jim Bowden wasted no time last night in placing Astacio on the 15-day DL and recalling reliever Jason Bergmann from Class AAA New Orleans.

“We might as well just shut him down and knock it out,” Bowden said. “Not that he couldn’t pitch, but we don’t want him to keep pitching ineffectively. It’s better to get him strong for the long haul.”

On the eve of Opening Day in New York, the Nationals are now forced to reconfigure their starting rotation. Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. will each be bumped up a spot, with Ortiz now starting in place of Astacio on Thursday against Mets ace Pedro Martinez. Armas, who wasn’t supposed to pitch until May 9 in Houston, will now start Friday against the Astros.

“We can’t afford to skip [Astacio’s turn in the rotation] and go on,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We need to have healthy people here.”

With Bergmann now on the Opening Day roster, the Nationals will start the season with a four-man rotation and seven-man bullpen. But they’ll need to choose a fifth starter before the May 9 game, and Bowden last night indicated the front-runners are right-hander Ryan Drese and lefty Billy Traber. Drese, who is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, is scheduled to pitch tomorrow in a minor-league game in Viera, Fla., with Traber scheduled to start Tuesday.

“We don’t have to get that far ahead,” Robinson said. “That’s a long way off.”

Astacio, 36, has struggled all spring after signing a one-year, $700,000 contract with incentives one week into spring training. Brought in to help compensate for the loss of original No. 3 starter Brian Lawrence, he entered yesterday’s exhibition at Camden Yards with a 10.50 ERA in four spring games.

Astacio apparently complained of forearm tightness after his last start in Florida, and he didn’t look quite right during yesterday’s 8-4 loss to the Orioles, with a fastball that registered between 84 and 86 mph. He was about to take the field for the third inning but then was called back to the dugout and was replaced by left-hander Mike Stanton.

Team physician Bruce Thomas examined Astacio at the ballpark, then sent him to Washington to undergo an MRI performed by club orthopedist Ben Shaffer. Thomas said he believes the injury to be a simple strain, but said the MRI could detect a more serious muscle tear. If it’s only a strain, Astacio would need to rest for seven to 10 days and then restart a throwing program.

Lineup set

At long last, Robinson has committed to an Opening Day lineup. After putting off the decision for weeks, he finally unveiled his starting eight yesterday, with rookie Brandon Watson leading off and slugger Alfonso Soriano batting fifth.

Jose Vidro will hit second, followed by Jose Guillen and cleanup man Nick Johnson. Ryan Zimmerman will bat sixth, followed by Royce Clayton and Brian Schneider.

Though he waited until now to settle on his lineup, Robinson admitted it didn’t require a whole lot of thought.

“Just common sense, really,” the manager said. “The guys at the top, that’s almost automatic. … This lineup is the best one we can put on the field.”

Perhaps Robinson’s biggest decision was where to bat Soriano, who has significant experience leading off and actually has better offensive numbers when he hits at the top of the order rather than further down.

During the last three seasons, Soriano has hit .289 with 44 homers with a .335 on-base percentage in 792 at-bats as a leadoff hitter. In 528 at-bats as a No. 3 hitter, he’s hit .277, and in 544 at-bats as a No. 5 hitter, he’s hit .270.

The Nationals traded for Soriano this winter, though, not to get on base as much as to drive in runs, which is why Robinson has him fifth.

“We brought in Soriano to help out the offense here and give some protection in the middle of the lineup,” he said. “That’s where I feel like he’s going to be best suited and the biggest help to this ballclub.”

For his part, Soriano said he would have been fine wherever Robinson put him.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to my numbers. The only thing I like about leading off is I have more opportunities to get at-bats.”

Extra bases

Gary Majewski had another rough outing in relief, giving up three runs, walking two and uncorking a wild pitch in one inning yesterday. The Nationals’ set-up man, who missed much of camp to pitch for the United States in the World Baseball Classic, finished the exhibition season with an unsightly 18.90 ERA in seven games. …

The announced attendance at Camden Yards was 11,183, about 7,000 less than Friday night’s “Battle of the Beltway” game at RFK Stadium. …

The Nationals finished the exhibition season with a 9-23-1 record, the worst in baseball.

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