- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

NEW YORK — Pitcher Pedro Astacio has a right forearm flexor strain, a minor injury that should only keep him out five to seven days.

An MRI taken on Astacio’s right forearm Saturday night in Washington confirmed the injury wasn’t serious. Club orthopedist Ben Shaffer will re-evaluate Astacio in about a week, at which time he is expected to resume a throwing program.

Astacio was penciled in as the No.3 starter in the rotation. That means hard-throwing right-hander Ramon Ortiz will be bumped up to the third slot behind Livan Hernandez and John Patterson and pitch Thursday afternoon against New York Mets ace Pedro Martinez at Shea Stadium.

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“You guys [media] put numbers on them. I don’t put numbers on them,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “We have five starters today. [Ortiz] will be moved up behind Patterson for the third start. That’s the way I’ll put it. It’s the same difference. I don’t like to put numbers on guys.”

Astacio pulled himself before the third inning from Saturday’s exhibition against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards complaining of forearm tightness. The club placed Astacio on the 15-day disabled list that night and recalled right-handed reliever Jason Bergmann from Class AAA New Orleans.

Bergmann, who started one game last season for the Nationals, has not been informed what his role will be with Astacio is out.

“They just told me to come here and pitch. That’s fine with me,” Bergmann said. “They haven’t told me anything at all. As far as I know, I’m just here for whatever role they have for me is what I’ll accept.”

The Nationals won’t need a fifth starter until next week in Houston because of tomorrow’s off-day. However, Robinson did rule out tall right-hander Jon Rauch as a candidate.

“I just prefer to keep him in the role [of long reliever] that set him up towards the end of spring training,” Robinson said. “I’d rather let him stay there rather than letting him bounce around and let him settle into the bullpen right now. If [Astacio’s injury] was considered a long-term thing, I would certainly have seriously considered him for that position.”

The most likely candidate to be the fifth starter is injured reliever Ryan Drese. Drese, who had shoulder surgery in the offseason, is on the 15-day disabled list but is eligible to come off Saturday. Drese was scheduled to throw 75 pitches in a minor league game yesterday at the Nationals’ Viera, Fla., spring training complex.

“We would prefer him to do one more, but if he’s out of that one and everything is fine, that would be close enough for him to go five or six innings,” Robinson said.

Playing left field

For the first time, Alfonso Soriano admitted yesterday playing left field is harder than he imagined. The four-time All-Star second baseman said he is having problems tracking balls off left-handed hitters and going back on balls.

The Nationals are trying to convert Soriano into a reliable outfielder, but that transformation has been shaky at best. Soriano has struggled judging fly balls this spring, either letting balls drop in or having drives sail over his head.

“Yes, it’s very hard, especially when people think it’s very easy to catch fly balls,” Soriano said.

When Soriano returned from the World Baseball Classic, he was reluctant to play left field and refused to play a spring training game. After some heavy-handed persuading by the Nationals’ front office, including a threat to put him on Major League Baseball’s disqualified list, Soriano accepted the position change.

On the eve of Opening Day, Soriano said he’s not happy there because he’s unable to play the position properly.

“Not yet because I’m not 100 percent over there,” he said. “When I’m 100 percent, maybe I can be happy over there.”

During spring training, Jose Cardenal, a special assistant to general manager Jim Bowden, worked exclusively with Soriano in the outfield. With Cardenal not on the Nationals coaching staff, base coaches Davey Lopes and Tony Beasley are now in charge of working with Soriano during the season.

Robinson said it’s going to take time to convert Soriano into a solid defensive outfielder.

“All I want him to do is work at it and hopefully not make the same mistake twice and learn from your mistakes,” he said. “And so far, he’s putting the effort in. It’s going to be a slow process. It may take at least a half-year or all of this year.”

Opening series rotation

The Nationals aren’t the only team with starting pitching problems.

Yesterday, the New York Mets shuffled their rotation because of a hamstring injury to Victor Zambrano and will start 25-year-old rookie Brian Bannister against the Nationals on Wednesday.

Bannister, who will make his major league debut, allowed just two earned runs in 19 innings this spring.

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