Tuesday, March 7, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — The game already was more than three hours old and still only in the seventh inning, the Florida Marlins led the Washington Nationals by the unsightly score of 21-11 and no one left at Space Coast Stadium could be faulted for suffering from a little mind-wandering.

Brandon Watson, though, would have none of it. When he came to the plate for the fifth time yesterday, he easily could have swung at the first pitch and helped move this excruciating game along.

Instead, the Nationals’ rookie outfielder did just what his manager and coaches have been telling him to do. He drew a walk.

The crowd moaned in frustration, but Watson knew better. As he said later: “No matter what the score is, there are still things for you to work on.”

That might have been music to Frank Robinson’s ears. The Nationals manager has been imploring Watson to work on all those little things that make a leadoff hitter successful — taking pitches, bunting, slapping the ball to the opposite field — and moments like this suggest he has been listening.

“I like what I see,” Robinson said of Watson, who a year ago struggled both during spring training and in a couple of late-season call-ups. “Last year, we talked about the same things, and he just didn’t have that feel. This spring he does have that feel for it.”

Perhaps Watson has enough of that feel to convince the Nationals to make him their Opening Day center fielder and leadoff man.

It has been lost amid all the other stories of camp this spring, but the open competition for the center-field job is no less important than the state of Washington’s rotation, the health of Jose Guillen or the reluctance of Alfonso Soriano to play the outfield.

The Nationals desperately need to head north with an established leadoff man, and no one in camp seems better qualified for that role than Watson, the 24-year-old rookie. After hitting .355 and stealing 31 bases at Class AAA New Orleans a year ago, he came to spring training knowing he could win the job with a strong showing.

So far, so good. Even with yesterday’s 0-for-4, two-walk performance, Watson’s on-base percentage stands at a hefty .450. He’s batting .353 (6-for-17) and has stolen two bases.

More than that, he has taken the coaching staff’s advice and put it to work on the field. He dropped a beautiful drag bunt against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton on Friday. He’s being aggressive on the basepaths. And as he showed yesterday, he’s taking pitches and attempting to draw walks.

Watson admits he struggled to change his assertive approach at the plate last season, but he’s picked up on the message this time around.

“I’m kind of aggressive when the ball’s in the zone. And I like to hit,” he said. “But Frank told me they want me to take some pitches, make sure I work the count. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

If this scenario sounds familiar, it is. One year ago, Endy Chavez found himself in the same predicament, needing to show the Nationals he could make the adjustments necessary to be a major league leadoff hitter. Chavez failed, and on the final week of spring training he was banished to the minors, never to be heard from seriously again.

Robinson, though, insists Watson is no Endy Chavez.

“He’s ahead of Endy now, understanding what he has to do and what we need from him,” the manager said. “This kid is capable of being an exciting player. He’s still inexperienced, and we look at that, too. Will he be able to handle it? Would it be better for him to start at Triple-A and get these things really down in a more relaxed atmosphere, and then maybe go and get him in a month or so?”

Maybe so. The Nationals already have Ryan Church, no slouch in his rookie season, ready and waiting to start in center field. Robinson insists the club hasn’t given up on him, and Church says he’s more than willing to hit leadoff if asked.

“I’ve always said whatever it takes to get me in the lineup,” he said. “I know I’m not your prototypical leadoff guy, but it’s OK with me.”

Watson, though, is that prototypical leadoff guy. And the potential he has setting the stage for the likes of Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Zimmerman is too great for the Nationals not to give him serious consideration this spring.

“It’d be great if he puts the pressure on us to make those decisions,” Robinson said. “That means he’s not very far away. I’d like to have to make that decision at the end of the spring.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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