- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — There’s a player in Washington Nationals camp who hit .282 in 464 at-bats over the last two years with 19 home runs, 77 RBI and a .359 on-base percentage.

That’s essentially one season’s worth of production, and significant production at that.

So why hasn’t it been good enough for Ryan Church to guarantee himself a spot in the Nationals’ starting lineup? That question has been plaguing Church, club officials, media members and fans alike for two years now, and there hasn’t been a concrete answer.

There is, however, no question how important this season is to the 28-year-old outfielder.

“This is his time to prove to the world whether he can be an everyday player or just be a backup guy for the rest of his life,” manager Manny Acta said.

Church doesn’t disagree. He knows the Nationals are tiring of his on-again, off-again act, and he’s down to his last chance to make good. All he wants now is the opportunity to play every day.

“Let me play,” he said. “Take the reins off, and let me go. Last year, I’d play for two days and then sit for a week, play for four days and then sit for another four. Mentally, it just killed me. But I’ve learned from that now. I want to be the everyday guy. That’s my mind-set. Just give me those at-bats, and I will put numbers up.”

Acta plans to. Despite the overall perception that Church is battling Alex Escobar, Chris Snelling and perhaps rookie Kory Casto for the starting left field job, Washington’s new manager has repeatedly tried to insist that’s not the case.

“Ryan Church is the left fielder,” Acta said again yesterday.

Of course, Church has been under the impression he was an everyday player before. Rewind one year ago when Church, coming off a solid rookie season, came to spring training believing the Nationals’ center field job was his, and his alone.

Then on March 28, just two days before the team broke camp and headed north, Church was demoted to the minor leagues, a stunning blow from which he never fully recovered.

“I really didn’t see it myself, I didn’t feel it,” he said. “But after the fact, after getting sent down, I went back and reflected on it. I knew coming in I had the wrong attitude. That’s not me. I’d never done that before.”

So Church set out to fix his attitude and restore his good standing within the organization. He hit some bumps along the way, getting demoted a second time in May after hitting just .215, before bouncing back to hit .305 in 48 games after the All-Star break.

Even then, he found himself benched through most of September to make room for Nook Logan in center field. And after an offseason awash in trade rumors and some miscommunication about his deciding not to play winter ball in Mexico, Church appeared to be on shaky footing once again.

Enter Acta, who had seen Church first-hand as third base coach of the Montreal Expos and later saw plenty of him from the opposing dugout while coaching the New York Mets. Acta had always been fond of the outfielder, and upon getting the Nationals’ job made a point to call Church and assure him of his standing within the organization.

“I’ve seen him before,” Acta said. “He can hit a fastball. He can play defense. He can throw.”

Church appreciated the gesture from his new manager, but he learned his lesson last year: Never assume. Which explains why he’s still approaching this camp as though he has to compete for a job.

“I am competing,” he said. “I’m not going to assume they’ve written me in there, because I could take that the wrong way and then get lackadaisical like I did last year. I’m not doing that this year.”

And if given the opportunity at last to play every day for this team, Church believes the rest will take of itself. If not, he doesn’t deserve to be here.

“The thing is, I haven’t really been able to show them,” he said. “If they give me 500 to 600 at-bats, it’s time to go. Put up or shut up.”

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