- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

Kory Casto knew better than to unpack his bags when he arrived in Washington on Friday night. Sensing his stay in the District would be brief, the Washington Nationals outfielder left all his belongings in his car, then arrived at RFK Stadium yesterday morning prepared to learn he was being sent down.

The news came early, well before the Nationals lost 6-3 to the Baltimore Orioles in their final exhibition tuneup. Casto (along with reliever Saul Rivera) was optioned to Class AAA Columbus, his impressive showing this spring not enough to land him a spot on the Opening Day roster.

“I don’t think people expected me to do this well,” the 25-year-old said. “I expected it for myself. More than anything, to be able to come in and compete at this level is something I knew I could do. And if I didn’t do it, I’d be more disappointed in myself than I am right now. I did everything I could.”

Casto’s best wasn’t enough. Ultimately, his fate was tied to the strained right groin of center fielder Nook Logan. Had Logan not been healthy enough to start the season, Casto would have wound up starting in left field tomorrow against the Florida Marlins. But Logan proved the last two days he was good to go, so Casto became the odd man out, much to the chagrin of club officials who would have preferred to keep him.

“It’s really hard as the GM of a team to option a player who deserves to be here,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “It’s very hard. This kid’s a first-class kid, totally understands. He knows he’ll be back.”

Casto, the organization’s minor league player of the year the last two seasons, did his best to make the decision difficult on the Nationals. Despite having never played above Class AA, he showed the talent and maturity of a major league veteran.

In 22 exhibition games, he hit .280, drove in five runs and drew seven walks, enough to reach base at an impressive .368 clip. He also showed a willingness to learn a new position (first base) in the hopes it would help him make the squad as a super-utility player off the bench.

Manager Manny Acta, who had stated early in camp Casto would make the club only as an everyday player, changed his tune about a week ago and wondered aloud whether there might be a place for Casto on his bench.

Then Logan went down with what originally looked like a serious groin injury, and Casto’s odds of making the club skyrocketed. Acta penciled him in as his starting left fielder, people started congratulating Casto and his parents made plans to fly in from Oregon for his expected major league debut.

Casto, though, kept a level head through it all, knowing nothing was certain until the Nationals officially informed him where he was going.

“From the beginning, I was just set on making the team, and no matter what happened, until they told me otherwise, I was going to keep that mind-set,” he said. “Kind of block everything else out and go out there and compete more than think about what’s going on with the politics of the roster and stuff like that.”

His instincts were correct in the end. Logan’s groin healed far faster than expected, and when he started in center field Friday in Norfolk, it was obvious he would be in Washington on Opening Day … and Casto would be in Columbus.

Casto took the news well, just as Acta figured he would.

“That was something I had talked to him from the beginning of spring training, and he understood the situation,” the manager said. “He kind of knew if Nook was ready to play, he’d be the odd man out. I also made sure he knew he’s down there for us to grab at any time.”

Indeed, few expect Casto to remain at Class AAA long. Acta said he will be the first player called up when the Nationals need another bat.

He will play mostly left field in Columbus, though he will make regular appearances at first and third bases, just in case.

“He’s going to be available,” Bowden said. “So wherever our injury is, he’ll be a guy that can come in and fill in at any of those positions.”

Because the Nationals needed extra players for yesterday’s game, Casto stuck around and wound up entering in the sixth inning. He went 0-for-2, then packed his bags, shook some hands and prepared for the trip to Columbus.

By the time he walked out the clubhouse door at RFK, Casto only could hope he had left a lasting impression on the Nationals and convinced enough people that he should be invited back in the near future.

“That was one of my goals coming into the spring,” he said. “Get them to see me and know that I was ready to play in the big leagues.”

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