- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Many of the key players for the Washington Nationals are ready for the season to begin.

Spring training isn’t official until today when the club’s pitchers and catchers are required to report to camp. But that didn’t discourage a number of position players — rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Nick Johnson, catcher Brian Schneider, outfielder Ryan Church and slugger Jose Guillen — from showing up more than a week ago.

“It’s just good to get here early,” said Church, who is projected to start in either left or center field. “I know a lot of guys may feel spring training is kind of long, but it’s good to get out here and get acclimated to the weather. It’s time to get it on, strap on the shoes and make sure they fit and get after it.”

The mood in the clubhouse was upbeat yesterday. The Nationals are coming off a surprising 81-81 season, and central Florida also offered perfect baseball weather — sunny and in the mid-70s.

Position players are scheduled to report this Thursday, but five projected Nationals starters were already here.

For Zimmerman, who is attending his first-ever spring training, arriving early is a way for him to get more comfortable before camp begins.

“I just want to get as ready as I can, I really don’t know what to expect,” he said. “Be ready, stay healthy, and be ready to go when the real games start.”

Meanwhile, Guillen has been at the Nationals’ spring training complex for the past two weeks rehabbing his left shoulder. A few weeks ago, Guillen said his shoulder might not be ready on Opening Day. But since then, Guillen has resumed baseball activities, throwing and hitting off a tee.

The Nationals star outfielder said he’s well ahead of his physician’s timetable for his return from offseason rotator cuff surgery.

“I’ve been feeling better every day, little by little,” said Guillen, who led the Nationals with 24 home runs and 76 RBI last season. “The doctor and trainer are very happy to see the progress that I’ve been making. I might go and surprise all you guys. I will say yes [to Opening Day], but I don’t want to rush anything. I think I’m going to play this spring, and I don’t think I’m going to miss that much time like people say.

“I’m a hard-working man and I’m making progress. I’m way ahead of where people expect me to be.”

Guillen, 29, is certainly doing his part to be ready for Opening Day. The Nationals’ starting right fielder is the first to arrive in the clubhouse, around 7:30 every morning, to work out. Guillen says he gets his running and conditioning in early before his teammates arrive.

With many new players this season, it’s going to be important for the Nationals to develop team chemistry with the new players during camp. With at least two new pitchers — Brian Lawrence and Ramon Ortiz — who may be a part of the rotation, getting to know each other this spring is going to be key for team success.

“There’s a lot of guys in this clubhouse right now. I think I heard like 70 was the number of guys they invited to camp this year,” starting pitcher John Patterson said. “So it’s going to be a busy camp, there’s going to be a lot of guys having to learn the system, and see if we can get a good team chemistry going. It looks good so far.”

Patterson (9-7, 3.14) is coming off a surprising season. The tall right-hander easily would have won 10 to 15 games but received poor run support.

In the offseason, Patterson said he worked extensively on adding a new pitch and hopes to fine-tune it during spring training.

Note — The Nationals have hired Larry DiVito as their new head groundskeeper. DiVito, who replaces Jimmy Rodgers, spent the last three years as assistant athletic director/facilities at Princeton University. Before that, he spent three years as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ grounds crew manager and seven years as head groundskeeper of the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox.

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