- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — While others in the mix for the final spot in the starting rotation give the Nationals reasons not to select them, Jerome Williams has given Washington good reason to keep him around.

The 25-year-old right-hander got off a rough start this spring, getting tagged for six runs in his Grapefruit League debut, but he has been dynamite ever since.

And with five stellar innings last night in a 16-2 trouncing of the Houston Astros, Williams perhaps convinced the Nationals to include him on their Opening Day roster.

“So many things can happen the last minute in spring training; that’s why I don’t want to name anybody yet,” manager Manny Acta said. “But he helped himself. … He’s been terrific the last two outings.”

It would be hard to argue Williams doesn’t deserve a spot at this point. Following the inauspicious spring debut against the Atlanta Braves, he tossed 12 straight scoreless innings before surrendering two unearned runs in the fifth last night. His ERA has dropped to 3.38.

That’s in stark contrast to the numbers put up by Williams’ chief contender, Tim Redding, who owns an 11.42 ERA and was roughed up for three first-inning runs Wednesday night.

The key to Williams’ dramatic turnaround after that disastrous debut?

“That first game, I thought negative about everything that happened,” he said. “I just tried to learn from that, and each outing I learned more and more how to trust my stuff and not worry about whatever happened the pitch before.”

Williams was in total control in his latest start, though it certainly helped that he took the mound with the Nationals already ahead 6-0. The right-hander went right to work, allowing an infield single to leadoff man Craig Biggio but then no other base hits until the fifth.

Williams even helped his cause with three hits at the plate. He’s a career .110 hitter, so fans shouldn’t be expecting too many more offensive performances like this.

Speigner reigns

It appears rookie Levale Speigner is close to locking up one of the two available jobs in the Nationals’ bullpen and will serve as a long reliever and spot starter. The right-hander, a Rule 5 selection, tossed three scoreless innings last night, extending his consecutive run this spring to 112/3 innings.

“He deserves to be on this baseball team the way he’s pitched this spring,” general manager Jim Bowden said before the game. “He’s earned it. He’s beaten almost all of the relievers out. There’s no reason to believe he can’t go out there this year and do what he’s done this spring.”

That leaves one other spot open in the bullpen, and the choice likely comes down to a pair of right-handers: Chris Booker and Saul Rivera.

Rivera impressed last season as a rookie, going 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in 54 appearances, but he has given up five runs in six innings this spring. Booker, meanwhile, hasn’t been scored upon in three major league innings and remains an intriguing possibility.

Booker, though, currently isn’t with the club because of a death in his family. He’s expected to miss several days, but Acta said his absence shouldn’t hinder his chances of making the team.

“I don’t think so,” Acta said. “I think we like what we see in Book. We like him, and whether he’s here or not, that’s not going to have an effect on making our decision.”

Extra bases

Kory Casto, who had previously played only left field and third base this spring, made his first appearance ever at first base last night. Casto came in to replace Travis Lee in the fifth inning and successfully handled everything that came his way. The organization’s two time minor league player of the year is going to have trouble cracking the roster in a crowded outfield, but his versatility could help him ultimately land in the majors sooner. …

Catcher Brian Schneider, out since Saturday with a strained hamstring, is targeting a Sunday return to the field.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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