- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Washington Nationals right-hander Jon Rauch allowed two runs on two hits in three innings in his spring training debut yesterday against the Baltimore Orioles.

David Newhan homered over the right-field fence on Rauch’s second pitch of the game, and Nick Markakis, a top prospect, homered to center to lead off the second. Rauch retired the Orioles in order in the third.

“You take it as it comes, and I’m real happy with the way I felt out there,” said Rauch, who missed 102 games last season after shoulder surgery. “I was able to command some pitches for strikes and stay around the zone, and that’s all I can ask for right now.”

The 6-foot-11 Rauch is battling Pedro Astacio, Ramon Ortiz, Ryan Drese and Tony Armas Jr. for the final three spots in the rotation.

Rauch, who opened last season at Class AAA New Orleans, went 2-4 with a 3.60 ERA in 15 games. He has added value because he can perform as a long man out of the bullpen.

“Right now, it’s important to make sure that I’m healthy, make sure I’m in shape to go out there and do the role, whatever it may be that they want me to fill and just to throw strikes and have command of all my pitches,” he said.

Battle of the beltways

The Nationals and Orioles will see a lot of each other this season. The Nationals and Orioles will play 11 times — five games this spring and six in interleague play.

For Nationals manager Frank Robinson, that might be overkill.

“I don’t like to play one club that much in spring training,” Robinson said. “I’ll hold something back. I won’t let then see my real good stuff.”

Back in the dorm

Nationals catcher/first baseman Matt LeCroy and Orioles starter Kris Benson were college roommates at Clemson. But that didn’t stop LeCroy from roughing up his old friend.

LeCroy, whom the Nationals signed to a one-year, $850,000 deal to supply power off the bench, tied the game 1-1 with his first homer of the spring in the second inning.

“I caught [Benson] in college. He was my roommate in college, so I had a little more rapport on him than most of the guys,” LeCroy said. “[Right field] is usually where I hit a bunch of my home runs.”

Strong performance

Right-hander Steve Watkins, 27, turned in perhaps the best outing of any Nationals pitcher to date. Watkins, who signed a minor league deal with Washington, pitched three no-hit innings, striking out five.

“I was trying to be aggressive early in the count and get them to swing the bat a little bit,” he said. “If I was able to get two strikes on a person, I’d go with a breaking ball and kind of take it from there. The key and the difference from last time was getting ahead from strike one and believing in your stuff.”

In his debut Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Watkins allowed two runs on four hits in two innings.

“Getting the first and second strike was the biggest bonus for me today,” Watkins said.

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

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