- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

VERO BEACH, Fla. — The man who will be at the plate for the first pitch of the Washington Nationals’ season Monday afternoon wasn’t even in the club’s plans a year ago.

When the Nationals broke camp last spring and headed north, Brandon Watson was on his way to Harrisburg to open the season with the Class AA Senators. He had even been removed from Washington’s 40-man roster over the winter, unclaimed by 29 other major league clubs.

So Watson’s rise from forgotten minor leaguer one year to Opening Day center fielder the next is nothing short of remarkable.

But, according to general manager Jim Bowden, it’s not unwarranted.

“He went down there and just worked his way back,” said Bowden, who finally came to appreciate Watson after several positive phone calls last summer from assistants Jose Cardenal and Bob Boone. “It seemed the higher up he goes, the better he plays. He did what he did last year and came out this spring training and did the same thing. He’s just outperforming and outworking what most scouts’ judgments were on the player. I’m happy for him. I hope he can keep it up.”

There’s the catch: Can Watson keep it up now that he has been handed the opportunity?

The Nationals certainly hope so. They optioned Ryan Church to Class AAA New Orleans and declared Watson their everyday center fielder. Though the move made perfect sense on paper — Watson was hitting .306 at the time, Church was hitting .200 — it didn’t necessarily take into account Church’s impressive 2005 season or Watson’s lack of major league experience.

In fact, Watson struggled during his brief call-up last summer. He homered in his major league debut Aug.9 in Houston but had one hit in his next 14 at-bats and wound up getting shipped back to the minors.

Watson now can admit he wasn’t quite ready for the pressures of the major league spotlight, even if he thought he was at the time.

“You know, I felt that way in my heart,” he said. “But I wasn’t really — I don’t know how to explain this — I wasn’t really ready for the experience. It was still a positive for me, just getting out there with the guys and playing in front of that many people. It was a learning experience.”

Watson was called up at the time because he was hitting .355 at New Orleans and Nationals officials hoped he might inject some life into a stagnant lineup. They gave him only five games to prove himself.

“No young player comes up and sporadically plays and is able to play at the level that he’s able to,” Bowden said. “So I didn’t think that was a fair way to judge the player. This spring, he’s been given at-bats, and he’s done the job on a consistent basis.”

And he has been willing to take his coaches’ advice and refine his game to make himself a better leadoff hitter. That meant taking more pitches at the plate, dropping down bunts on a routine basis and looking to hit the ball to the opposite field.

It’s nothing Watson, 24, hadn’t done before. He just hadn’t been told to put such an emphasis on it.

“You play baseball all your life, and you’re accustomed to doing things a certain way,” he said. “I’ve been a leadoff hitter, but to be the best leadoff guy I can be, I have to do more of what they want me to do. That’s fine with me. All the stuff they asked me to do is just what a typical leadoff hitter does, and they’re things that I can do.”

Watson didn’t just take the coaches’ advice. He executed it on the field, performing so well this spring that the Nationals couldn’t in good conscience cut him.

That said, Watson could easily find himself on a short leash again this year. He will get more than five games to prove himself this time, but both Bowden and manager Frank Robinson admitted they will be watching closely and won’t hesitate to recall Church or plug in Marlon Byrd as their leadoff hitter if Watson struggles.

So Watson knows he can’t take anything for granted now that he’s assured of his place on Washington’s Opening Day roster. And Robinson doesn’t believe the soft-spoken kid who grew up in Los Angeles among a host of famous athletes (his father, Sam Watson, is a well-connected boxing promoter) will let all this attention get to his head.

“He’s levelheaded. He understands the situation,” Robinson said. “He’s been around big-time events and things and people in baseball. His father introduced him to a lot of outstanding players that have talked to him over the years and still talk to him about how to conduct himself and how to play this game.

“The toughest part is staying here. He understands that.”

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