- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

LAKELAND, Fla. — When Manny Acta arrives at Space Coast Stadium around 6:30 a.m. most days, he doesn’t expect to find many of his Washington Nationals already at the park, certainly not in uniform and hard at work.

So imagine the rookie manager’s surprise the first time he noticed Kory Casto taking swings in the batting cage in the predawn hours, refining his technique while some of his teammates were still asleep in bed.

That might have been when Acta officially fell in love with Casto.

“He’s got such a great work ethic, and he’s such a hard-nosed type of player,” Acta said. “He’s my type of player. He’s like a manager’s dream.”

And because of a series of otherwise unfortunate events, notably Nook Logan suffering a strained groin, the manager’s dream player is going to be in his Opening Day lineup.

Casto, the organization’s two-time minor league player of the year, is expected to start in left field at RFK Stadium on Monday when the Nationals play the Florida Marlins in their season opener. And the 25-year-old is just as surprised as everyone else to hear it.

“This probably wasn’t their plan in the first place,” he said.

Casto wasn’t really in the club’s major league plans when spring training commenced six weeks ago. Not because he wasn’t highly thought of within the organization — there just didn’t seem to be room for him on the 25-man roster.

With Logan slated to play center field, Ryan Church in left and Chris Snelling coming off the bench, Casto looked like the odd man out. It didn’t help matters that he was the only player in that group with minor league options, further hindering his chances of sticking around.

Then Casto started playing so well he forced the Nationals to start reconsidering their plans to send him to Class AAA Columbus to open the season. He entered yesterday’s game against the Detroit Tigers with a .314 spring average and .410 on-base percentage. And he impressed club officials with his eagerness to learn how to play first base in an attempt to make himself even more versatile and valuable.

“I think all the people that are more familiar with him, more than I am, were kind of expecting something like this,” Acta said. “They knew that coming into spring training he was going to make it this tough.”

Casto, who has never played above Class AA, tried not to think too much about his chances of making the leap to the majors.

“I was just coming out every day and trying to prove myself,” he said. “And then a couple of unfortunate things happened.”

Casto’s big break, as it was, came Saturday when Logan strained his right groin muscle rounding first base. Washington’s projected Opening Day center fielder now will miss at least two weeks, forcing Acta to shift things around. Church will move from left field to center field, and Casto apparently will get the bulk of the playing time in left field ahead of Snelling.

It will mark the end of a somewhat unusual road to the big leagues for Casto, who already has played six different positions since getting drafted in 2003 out of Portland: third base, first base, second base and all three outfield positions.

Casto feels most comfortable in left and right fields, but circumstances out of his control led to his odyssey around the diamond. The Nationals organization moved him to third base in 2004 but then drafted Ryan Zimmerman a year later and realized Casto would never have a chance to leapfrog the budding star.

So they had him try second base last spring, an experiment that didn’t go particularly well and was quickly scrapped.

“We had talked about moving him there because of Zimmerman,” vice president of player development Bob Boone said. “He had only played there a little bit [previously], so it was unfair to him.”

Casto went back to third base last year at Class AA Harrisburg, then was switched to left field as a possible in-season replacement had Alfonso Soriano been traded. He has had no problem with all his movement around the diamond.

“It’s a good thing,” Casto said. “It’s good to be able to do multiple things, so if something does happen, I’m not just limited to one spot. If they do need somebody to come up, I can play three, four, five positions.”

For now, he will spend most of his time in left field with an occasional start at first or third base when the regulars need rest. He won’t, however, lose his unyielding work ethic once he makes his major league debut.

That’s how Casto got here in the first place. And that’s how he intends to stay here for years.

“You ask him to go here, you ask him to go there, he works his butt off,” Acta said. “Whether he is [going to be] here or not here, that hasn’t changed the way he goes about his business. The kid is going to be up here for a long time and a good player. He’s impressed me.”

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