- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Just about everyone associated with the Washington Nationals arrived in Florida 45 days ago with some preconceived idea of how the club’s eventual starting rotation would look.

Everyone had John Patterson pitching on Opening Day. A good number had Shawn Hill making the squad, though not as the No. 2 man. A handful had Jerome Williams and Matt Chico but not nearly as many as had Tim Redding, Joel Hanrahan, Jason Simontacchi, Billy Traber or Colby Lewis. The next person who claims to have picked Jason Bergmann will be the first.

Amazing how much can change in six weeks. It would have been near-impossible to predict an Opening Day quintet of Patterson, Hill, Chico, Bergmann and Williams.

“Honestly, we didn’t know it was going to come to these five guys,” manager Manny Acta said.

No, but when the Nationals break camp this morning, those five starters will have major league jobs. Everyone else who had been involved in this wide-open rotation race won’t.

The club’s biggest question mark entering spring training might not have been resolved the way most figured it would, but few are upset with the finished product.

“I think the pitching staff ended up turning out real good,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “I was happy with the way they threw. I know that’s still the unanswered question, but I’m pretty happy with what we’ve got.”

A rotation that had only one known quantity (Patterson) coming into camp worked itself out over the course of the spring, with several presumed front-runners pitching themselves out of the mix and other lesser-known candidates seizing the opportunity.

The biggest disappointment was Redding, a 29-year-old right-hander with an established, major league track record, solid minor league numbers from a year ago and a prior relationship with Acta. Picked by many to be Washington’s No. 2 starter at the outset, Redding never got going. He pitched poorly in three of his four Grapefruit League outings, saw his ERA skyrocket to 11.42 and was promptly sent back to Class AAA.

“We thought Redding was going to be one of the guys,” Acta said. “And he didn’t do it.”

The Nationals also thought Hanrahan and Lewis would work their way into the mix, but 12 combined innings and 18 earned runs later, both were shipped out. One week into March, the rotation looked like an absolute mess.

But that’s just when things started to take shape, thanks to some impressive performances from a pair of young pitchers: Hill and Chico. Both were highly thought of within the organization, but both came in with major question marks. Hill was still working his way back from his 2005 elbow surgery; Chico had never pitched above Class AA and was an unknown quantity.

It quickly became evident, though, that both deserved to make the starting rotation.

Hill, 25, was the Nationals’ best starter this spring, going 1-0 with an 0.93 ERA in five starts and proving his arm was back in shape. Acta, who always held a high opinion of the sinkerballer from his preinjury days in the Montreal Expos’ organization, felt all along he would make the rotation. Hill had a hunch he would be in the mix, but he never expected he would wind up as the No. 2 starter behind Patterson.

“Going in, I was hoping that I was kind of going to steal the fifth spot,” he said.

Chico, meanwhile, became the surprise of the spring, pitching with more maturity than a 23-year-old. Showing the knowledge and poise of a tested veteran, the left-hander was effective in four of his five exhibition outings and convinced club officials he was ready to make the leap to the majors.

The Nationals know Chico might take his lumps at times this year, but they think the experience will be worth it come 2008 and beyond.

“He was one of those guys targeted by us,” Acta said. “If he did anything good in spring training, he would be one of the guys we were thinking about developing this year so he could have one year of big league experience next year.”

The fourth spot will be filled by Williams, who at 25 already has a 10-win major league season (in 2004 with the San Francisco Giants). The right-hander got off to a sluggish start this spring but rebounded to go 3-1 with a 3.44 ERA and earn a full-time job.

The last spot was supposed to be filled by Simontacchi, a journeyman right-hander who showed he could keep the ball in the strike zone and avoid big innings. But a strained groin will land him on the disabled list to open the season. Until Simontacchi is ready to return in another week or two, he will be replaced by Bergmann, who was pushing to make the team as a long reliever but has proved adequate in a starting role.

The names might not worry opposing teams, but the results this spring suggest the Nationals’ rotation is at least capable of outperforming last year’s group, which had the majors’ worst ERA (5.37).

“I think we’re fine,” Hill said. “By no means are we all Roger Clemens or anything like that, but we’re definitely fine if we stay healthy the majority of the year. I definitely think we’ll put up better numbers than we did last year.”

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