- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — In Chris Snelling’s mind, this was just another day on the job. That’s the way the 25-year-old outfielder looks at life: put in a hard day’s work, give everything he’s got and then let other people evaluate him.

“I definitely don’t think too much, I can tell you that much,” Snelling says in his mild Australian accent.

Inside the various offices at Space Coast Stadium, though, Washington Nationals officials are spending plenty of time thinking about Snelling. His play on the field is forcing them to reconsider his place within the organization and whether he deserves a chance to crack the Opening Day starting lineup.

“The way he’s swinging the bat, he’s in a good competition right now to be the everyday left fielder,” Jim Bowden said Sunday.

The general manager backtracked some yesterday, throwing his support back to Ryan Church, who had all but been given the job by manager Manny Acta. “I’m a big Ryan Church fan,” Bowden said. “I believe in him.”

But make no mistake, Snelling’s surprising play this spring (coupled with Church’s struggles) is forcing the Nationals to consider the possibility. He was at it again yesterday, reaching base all four times he came to the plate in Washington’s 9-1 exhibition win over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 12 Grapefruit League games, Snelling is hitting .310 with a .432 on-base percentage while leading the team in home runs (three), RBI (11) and runs (10). And that has Bowden and others gushing about the young outfielder, who along with reliever Emiliano Fruto was acquired from Seattle in December for second baseman Jose Vidro.

“Chris has a special bat,” Bowden said. “He has a chance to hit with a high on-base percentage. He’s capable of being a .300 hitter with 20 homers. He plays the game the right way. His uniform is dirty before the national anthem starts.”

Snelling reminds people around here of another curly-haired, hard-nosed player who used to roam the Space Coast Stadium outfield: Brad Wilkerson, the first batter in Nationals history.

Like Wilkerson, Snelling combines occasional pop with an ability to get on base. Like Wilkerson, he is small in stature (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) yet plays with a big heart. And like Wilkerson, he has battled through his share of injuries over the years.

Actually, Snelling can top just about anyone in the major leagues in a comparison of injuries. Despite his young age, he’s already had his left knee operated on seven times, stunting what has long been predicted to be a productive career. He’s a career .312 hitter in eight minor league seasons but has been limited to only 59 major league games because of injuries.

Snelling still wears a large knee brace on the field, but for the first time in a long time he can say he’s healthy.

“Knock on wood, good,” he said.

Snelling came to spring training fighting with the likes of Alex Escobar, Michael Restovich and Abraham Nunez for a job as the Nationals’ fourth or fifth outfielder. But he’s clearly outperformed all three of those competitors and has been more productive than two of the players currently slated to start (Church and center fielder Nook Logan).

“He’s a throwback,” said Acta, who had never seen Snelling play until this spring. “He plays hard, and so far in spring training he has given us good at-bats. He battles out there, and he has impressed everybody here.”

But has it been enough to warrant a starting job that would bump either Church or Logan to the bench? And, if so, how would Washington’s outfield be configured?

“We don’t have sure answers out there,” Bowden said. “We know Nook Logan is one of the best defensive center fielders in this league after Andruw Jones. The question is if he’s going to hit enough. We don’t know that. Is Church going to be able to reach his potential with the bat? Is Chris going to be able to stay healthy? We don’t know those questions.”

Church, who went 0-for-3 yesterday and saw his spring batting average fall to .175, said he understands the situation and is playing as if he has to earn his job.

“I know there’s guys in here who are in their first year with the team and are trying to make an impression,” he said. “It’s a competition. That’s how it is. That’s what spring training is all about.”

Snelling, on the other hand, insists he spends little time worrying about his status on the roster. As always, he takes the field every day happy to be healthy and pays no attention to the numbers he, or anyone else, puts up.

“I don’t look at it that way,” he said. “To me, we’re all wearing the same uniform. We’re all heading toward the same goal: to win baseball games, as many as we can during the course of a season. There’s no competition for me. From what I hear, the manager’s made up his mind on who he likes and who he doesn’t. That’s out of my control.”

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