- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson reiterated yesterday that Cristian Guzman is the club’s starting shortstop but didn’t rule out the possibility Royce Clayton would win the position during spring training.

“Cristian Guzman is the shortstop here. It’s up to him what he does here in spring training,” Robinson said. “That’s what I want to make him aware of. He’ll be judged the way he plays here in spring training, whether we make a switch from him to Royce Clayton or someone else to open the season.”

The Nationals are definitely concerned about the position. The switch-hitting Guzman batted just .219 — the lowest among the league’s starting shortstops. In the offseason, Guzman underwent laser eye surgery and arrived in camp proclaiming a new “Guzie” at the plate this season.

Meanwhile, Barry Larkin, a special assistant to general manager Jim Bowden, made his first appearance at camp yesterday. Larkin, who was a 12-time All-Star with his hometown Cincinnati Reds, brings his expertise to the Nationals’ shortstops.

“I’m here to help if [Guzman] wants my help,” Larkin said. “I know he’s got a good one [in Clayton] behind him, and competition is good. I think it’s going to make everybody elevate their game.”

Larkin, who lives about an hour away in Orlando, said he doesn’t have a set schedule to work with the club’s shortstops and will come and go throughout camp.

The Nationals signed the 15-year veteran Clayton as an insurance policy in case Guzman has a repeat of last season. Larkin carefully watched Guzman in the batting cage and was unable to tell whether he has altered his swing.

“This is the first time that we’re seeing him hit,” Larkin said. “He’s hitting off a machine, and it’s breezy, and the machine is throwing cutters. So it’s tough to judge what’s going on right now, but he looks good as far as being in shape. He’s lost some weight and has a good attitude. I joked with him about what happened last year, and he laughed about it. It’s a good start.”

When the Nationals signed Clayton to a nonguaranteed minor league contract, it was understood by all parties involved that Clayton, who hit .270 with two homers, 28 doubles and 44 RBI last year with Arizona, would have a chance to win the Nationals’ starting shortstop job.

“In talking with Royce myself over the winter, Royce has indicated to me that he is coming here to compete for the shortstop job, and he wanted to know if he would have that opportunity,” Robinson said. “I think Jim Bowden told him he would have the opportunity, and I certainly told him that he would have the opportunity to compete. I never got into asking him if he would accept that [backup] role if he didn’t. The guy is coming here to compete for a job. He doesn’t want to talk about backing up if it doesn’t happen.”

Live batting practice

The Nationals hit live pitching for the first time. It’s a good thing because the pitching machines were throwing some pretty nasty stuff.

With a stiff breeze blowing all workout, the wind was making the ball do funny things when it came out of the pitching machines. Thankfully, the Nationals pitchers also threw live BP with a little less movement on the ball.

“It was all over, either a riser, cutter or splitting,” outfielder Ryan Church said of the pitching machines in the batting cages.

Added rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: “[The Nationals pitchers] were a lot better than the machine.

Off to Japan

Bruce Thomas, the Nationals’ primary care physician, leaves tomorrow for Japan to work the first round of the World Baseball Classic at Tokyo Dome.

“My job will be to sort of coordinate any players that have ties with MLB, or even minor league players, to be coordinating their care and making sure that their parent club back home knows of any problems. I’ll be assisting their team physicians. They wanted somebody from the league there for their comfort level.”

Thomas can thank the former Montreal Expos’ vagabond existence for hooking him up with this job. Thomas traveled extensively to Puerto Rico with the Expos and was MLB’s logical choice to go to Asia.

Thomas said he has never been to Japan and is excited about this opportunity.

“There will be workouts for a few days, acclimate to the time difference, three days of games and then I’m back here lickety-split to take care of these guys,” he said. “I’m really honored that I got selected. I think one reason is that the Expos and now the Nationals have been property of the league, and I’ve had a lot of contact over the years with the commissioner’s office, and there is probably a level of trust there and confidence.”

Got a question about the Nats?

Mark Zuckerman has the answers. The Times’ beat reporter for the

Nationals will respond to your questions on-line and in print each

Monday, beginning Feb. 27. Send questions to Mark at natsmailbag [AT]

washingtontimes.com

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