- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Ask those who know Pedro Astacio how best to describe him as a pitcher, and inevitably they’ll use some variation of the word “competitor.”

Astacio has won 124 major league games in his career not only through physical talent but often through sheer guile and guts.

“The guy likes to win,” said Brian Lawrence, Astacio’s former teammate with the San Diego Padres. “He hates to lose. He’ll go out there and have a 1-2-3 inning and be as mad as can be because he made one bad pitch to one guy. He wants to be perfect. He’s a competitor.”

Said Jose Rijo, special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden: “He’s a real hard worker. He reminds me of Pedro and Ramon Martinez.”

Astacio channeled that competitive drive last season into a stellar run of starts with the Padres. Picked up off the scrap heap after going 2-8 with a 6.04 ERA and getting cut by the Texas Rangers, the veteran right-hander went 4-2 with a 3.17 ERA in 12 appearances down the stretch, helping lead San Diego to the National League West division crown.

And those numbers don’t even tell the whole story.

“The last month, he was the best pitcher on our team, no doubt,” said Lawrence, not forgetting about Padres ace Jake Peavy. “He went out there and was lights out.”

Baseball’s a funny game, though. You’d think a pitcher coming off such a sparkling run would be inundated with contract offers over the winter. Instead, Astacio returned to his home in the Dominican Republic and waited, then kept waiting for someone to call.

The Padres didn’t. Once he failed to re-sign with San Diego by a Jan. 8 deadline, Astacio found himself essentially on the open market. He was allowed to return to the Padres, but not until May 1.

Enter Bowden. The Nationals’ GM had his eye on Astacio all along, having watched him closely during his late-season run — including a seven-inning, three-hit masterpiece against Washington on Sept. 18.

And when Lawrence, who had been traded from San Diego to Washington in November, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Bowden wasted no time locking Astacio up. With no other club willing to offer the 36-year-old a guaranteed deal, Bowden upped his offer to one-year, $700,000, with incentives totaling more than $2 million.

The two sides consummated the deal Monday, Astacio passed his physical — including MRIs on both his surgically repaired shoulder and his elbow — on Wednesday and he was in the Nationals’ clubhouse yesterday laughing it up with his new teammates.

“We got us a couple of offers,” Astacio said. “We made a decision to go here because I think we’ve got a good team and here we think we can help that team to win some ballgames.”

Astacio will get every opportunity to win ballgames for the Nationals this spring. He’s one of five pitchers battling for three available spots in the starting rotation, joining Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch.

Though no one with the club will say so publicly, speculation is that Ortiz and Armas (provided they are healthy and perform reasonably well this spring) will win two of the spots. That leaves Astacio duking it out with Drese (who has not yet fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery) and Rauch (who could also be used out of the bullpen as a long reliever) for the final spot.

Astacio will need a little time to catch up to the rest of his teammates who have been in camp for two weeks, but he shouldn’t be far behind. He said he threw batting practice in the Dominican as recently as this week, and manager Frank Robinson said Astacio could make his first game appearance early next week.

“I was working really hard for the last two months,” Astacio said. “I know how to get ready myself every year.”

Said Robinson: “We’ll get him in as soon as he feels like he’s ready. I told him not to rush it.”

As for that competition for a rotation spot, Astacio said he won’t take anything for granted. He may have more of a track record over his 14 major league seasons than his challengers, but he knows nothing is assured in this game.

“We’ll see what’s going to happen the next couple weeks,” he said. “I am just getting myself ready to play baseball. That’s what I like to do. I enjoy playing baseball and competing.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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