Sunday, March 26, 2006

LAKELAND, Fla. — At the start of spring training, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson admitted his biggest concern involved sorting out the back end of his starting rotation, with three spots up for grabs among at least five candidates.

That’s not the case anymore. As Robinson said yesterday morning, “the starting rotation is set,” with Pedro Astacio, Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. occupying the three previously open spots by default more than anything.

So Robinson’s more pressing concern these days isn’t who’s going to pitch out of the rotation but how they’re going to pitch.

“We need two to exceed expectations, and we need one to be right on the borderline,” he said. “That’s what we need, because if you don’t, it dumps a bigger load on the bullpen. We’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Robinson and the Nationals may be waiting for a while to get their answer. Opening Day is nearly a week away, but it’s hard to say just how effective (or ineffective) this staff is going to be.

“They’re all coming,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “They’re all getting to where they need to be by the end of spring training. Two more starts, and I think they’ll all be there.”

Of the trio, Ortiz appears to have made the most strides this spring. After a shaky start, the veteran right-hander has turned in two straight solid starts, including six shutout innings Thursday against the Baltimore Orioles.

Astacio, signed one week into camp, has not found his groove yet, having allowed nine runs (seven earned) in seven spring-training innings to date.

Then there’s Armas, whom Robinson calls the “X-factor” after nearly three years lost to shoulder injuries. Apparently healthy for the first time since early 2003, the 27-year-old right-hander is still young enough to realize his potential and become the 15-game winner everyone projected he would be before he got hurt.

But is health the only thing standing in Armas’ way? He still has never posted an ERA under 4.00 over a full season, and he still has never shown he can mature into a full-blown major league pitcher, not just a thrower.

Robinson believes that final maturation will come once Armas proves his shoulder is sound.

“Other seasons, there was a question mark: ‘if’ he can,” the manager said. “We feel like the ‘if’ is still there, but it’s not as great as it was before. If he can do that, if he can stay healthy he has the stuff.”

Armas had the stuff yesterday against the Detroit Tigers. Both Robinson and St. Claire raved about his velocity and smooth arm motion.

“I saw some life on his fastball,” St. Claire said. “His breaking ball had some depth to it. He didn’t command it real good in the strike zone, but he looks good. He looks the best I’ve seen him in a couple years.”

But he didn’t have the results. He allowed four runs on five hits and walked three while reaching his predetermined pitch count of 70 just one out into the fourth inning. And while this is spring training and the results don’t count, it’s still a concern to Armas.

“You just want the results to come now,” he said. “You don’t want it to [wait] until after the season. But I feel good. My arm feels awesome.”

There’s that qualifier again. He feels good.

It’s why the Nationals were willing to take a chance on re-signing Armas this winter after it looked like his days with the club were over. But desperate for more arms after getting shunned by the top pitchers on the free-agent market, general manager Jim Bowden was willing to offer Armas a one-year, $2.1million contract because he became convinced Armas’ latest shoulder surgery would finally solve the problem.

So far, so good. Of course, Armas has pitched only 61/3 official spring-training innings. He has one more scheduled start in Florida, against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday, then likely will throw against minor leaguers or in a simulated game of some type on April4, an off-day for the Nationals.

That puts him in line to make his regular-season debut April9 against the Houston Astros.

“I’ll be ready for the start of the season,” Armas said. “I know I threw a lot of pitches [yesterday] and it was only 31/3 [innings]. But I’m not tired. That’s a good sign.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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