- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Nook Logan stood in the batter’s box at empty Space Coast Stadium yesterday, staring down a rookie pitcher and formulating a plan of attack.

He repeated the routine twice more during the midday intrasquad game, coming to the plate with a specific plan each time.

This is exactly what the Washington Nationals want Logan to do this spring. Of course, they also want to see him execute, something the young center fielder couldn’t do in three tries yesterday.

He failed to move a runner up in his first at-bat, lofting a weak fly ball on the first pitch he saw. He fouled off an attempted drag bunt his next time up and wound up striking out looking. And he tapped a slow roller in front of the plate his final time up, ending an 0-for-3 day.

Thus began a month-long experiment with the fleet, defensively gifted, offensively challenged 27-year-old. The Nationals believe Logan can turn himself into a productive hitter and become more than a one-dimensional player. And they need him to do this by Opening Day, because they need him to be their starting center fielder.

They can only convey the message. Logan must make it happen by himself.

“I’m going to try to work on something every day,” he said. “I’m not just going to take the job, say it’s mine and just get through the spring. I’m working to be better.”

Logan has gotten lost in the shuffle at times this spring, because the Nationals have so many other uncertainties throughout their roster. They have an open competition at first base. They haven’t solidified left field. They need to find four competent starting pitchers from a dozen candidates.

But make no mistake: Logan’s progress in center field is crucial for this club, because there are no clear-cut backup plans in case things don’t work out. And Logan, despite an eye-opening performance after coming to Washington last September, has never shown he can consistently hit at the major league level.

“I don’t think there is any question that he is a very special defensive center fielder,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “I don’t know how much he’s gonna hit. I know he’s going to have an opportunity with our organization to find out if he can hit.”

The Detroit Tigers tried for years to find out if Logan could. In six minor league seasons, he hit .261. In three major league seasons, he’s hit .270 with a .319 on-base percentage.

That hasn’t been nearly enough production for a top-of-the-order guy, which is what the speedy Logan has always strived to be. So the Tigers, after discovering Curtis Granderson a year ago, let Logan go. He was traded to Washington on Sept. 1 for a player to be named and sought to resurrect his career in a new town.

The early reviews were overwhelmingly positive. In addition to playing Gold Glove-caliber defense, Logan came through at the plate. In 27 games with the Nationals, he hit .300, scored 13 runs and beat out eight bunt singles.

That one-month tryout was enough to convince new manager Manny Acta to make Logan his starting center fielder. Not the frontrunner in an open competition. The starting center fielder.

“With his defense, if he can prove he can get on base, he’s here to stay for a long time,” Acta said.

That single display of confidence made all the difference to Logan.

“That makes you want to go out there and try to do more,” he said. “You don’t want to let him down.”

Logan’s scenario in Washington is awfully familiar to fans who remember two other speedy center fielders who couldn’t hit enough to stick around: Endy Chavez and Brandon Watson.

There is one major difference this time around, though. Acta is purposely trying not to put pressure on Logan. Where Chavez and Watson were asked to hit leadoff, Logan will open the season in the 8-hole.

If all goes well, the club doesn’t expect to keep him there long. Acta told Logan his top goal this season should be to become the Nationals’ No. 1 or No. 2 hitter by midsummer.

“I think it’s going to be a waste having him all the time hit eighth,” the manager said. “I think he should shoot very high for those kind of things.”

But for Logan to do that, he’s going to have to improve at the plate. He’s going to have to soak in the Nationals’ coaching advice, have a plan each time he steps to the plate this spring and — most importantly — execute it.

“I’ve already got my plan for tomorrow,” he said moments after yesterday’s game ended. “I saw some pitches today. Tomorrow I come out and just get some bunts down. That’s the game plan. I know what kind of guy I am. I’m just working hard every day to put myself in a position to do what they want from me.”

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