- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

VERO BEACH, Fla. — They walked into the clubhouse yesterday afternoon with wide smiles and even wider eyes.

The smiles underscored how happy they were to be here. The eyes, though, revealed how nervous they were.

“No, no,” Esmailyn Gonzalez tried to insist when asked through translator Javier Castro whether he was scared to be preparing for his first major league spring training game. “It feels good. I’m happy.”

The veteran players in the Washington Nationals clubhouse knew better.

“Did you see how big their eyes were?” one player noted. “Oh my god, they’re just kids.”

Yes, but for one night, Gonzalez and Chris Marrero were given a chance to experience life as big leaguers. With the Nationals playing split-squad games and needing a few extra bodies, general manager Jim Bowden promoted two of his top prospects from minor league camp for what he called “a little cup of coffee.” Both teenagers will be back with the minor leaguers today.

“They’re very young,” Bowden said. “We’re not trying to rush anyone. This is just a reward tonight.”

Gonzalez, 17, and Marrero, 18, were joined at Dodgertown last night by Dmitri Young, the 33-year-old first baseman who is trying to resurrect his career after a traumatic 2006 in Detroit. For Young, who started at first base and batted fifth, this was an audition of sorts. The Nationals have to decide within the next few days whether he’s in shape and ready to join the big league team permanently with a chance to win a starting job.

Young doesn’t think he’s far from being back into major league form, and his performance last night may have confirmed it. With Bowden sitting in the stands watching closely, Young went 2-for-3 with an opposite-field homer and an RBI single off Los Angeles ace Jason Schmidt.

“Showed them I still have it,” he said.

It doesn’t look like it will be long before Young is with the Nationals full time, but until then, he’s still having a good time playing with kids nearly half his age.

“It’s actually a little bit funner down there because these are prospects that are hungry,” he said. “That’s where the enthusiasm comes from. I’m having fun, and that’s something I didn’t have last year. I feel like I’m back in my original element again.”

Based on the way Young gushes over Gonzalez and Marrero, it’s not surprising he’s having a blast. The veteran first baseman calls Gonzalez “the quickest little infielder I’ve seen in a long time.” Marrero, he said, is “Albert Pujols Jr.”

If anyone’s worried the two prospects are letting all this praise get to their heads, it’s obvious that’s not the case after talking to them. Both are polite teenagers who were simply grateful for the opportunity to put on big league uniforms last night.

“It’s exciting. There’s nothing like getting called up,” said Marrero, a Nationals’ first-round pick from last summer’s draft. “Your dream is to play in the big leagues, and now you’re here. I just want to have fun with it.”

Neither prospect was in the starting lineup against the Dodgers, but both entered in the bottom of the fifth: Gonzalez, wearing jersey No. 91, at shortstop and Marrero, wearing No. 97, in left field.

Each went 0-for-1 at the plate, with Gonzalez striking out and Marrero flying out, but neither really needed to get into the game to make an impression. Gonzalez impressed with his slick fielding and ability to spray the ball across the field at the plate. Marrero was the star of batting practice, launching home run after home run out of the park, several of monstrous proportions.

Watching it all from behind the cage were Bowden and Vladimir Marrero, Chris’s father, who made the two-hour drive up from Opa Locka, Fla., with wife Dania to see the game.

The Marreros won’t get many opportunities to see their son play this season. Bowden said both Marrero and Gonzalez have shown enough progress and maturity this spring to merit promotions to low Class A Hagerstown. They will be two of the youngest players on the roster, but Bowden thinks they’re up to the challenge.

“They’ve both come a long way, and they’ve both worked extremely hard,” Bowden said. “I give them a lot of credit because what they did over the winter before the accelerated program started really showed up when they got here. And their work here has been phenomenal. That talks about their work ethic, their character, their passion and their desire to make it. That’s very encouraging.”

Besides, when they get to Hagerstown, they already will have the experience of being in the major leagues. Even if it was for only one night during spring training.

“In the long run,” Gonzalez said, “it will help me out a lot.”

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