- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

Stephen King struggled a bit last spring during his senior year in high school, but it was nothing like the nightmarish start to his first professional campaign.

King, the Washington Nationals’ third-round pick in last June’s draft, batted .180 with two home runs and 51 strikeouts in 128 at-bats with Class A Hagerstown before being sent to extended spring training in Viera, Fla., on Tuesday.

“He’s handling it great,” said Bob Boone, Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of player development. “He’s competed well and it is more of he’s in a position where he has to dig himself out of a hole and we don’t want him to dig so hard.”

King was considered one of the top prep prospects in the country heading into his senior year at Winter Park (Fla.) High School. The shortstop’s draft stock remained high despite the minor struggles, and the Nationals tabbed him with the 91st overall pick.

He signed too late to play last summer, so this April was his first exposure to professional baseball. There were flashes of his talent, especially in the field, but he could not shake his troubles at the plate. He was inconsistent, not only from day to day but with each at-bat. King would work a deep count one trip to the plate and swing and miss at three pitches the next.

“It has been a little rough,” King said last week. “I’ve just been trying to make adjustments along the way. It is not really my swing — I think I am just pulling off a little bit and doing a couple things here and there that are screwing me up a little bit.”

For this lifelong Floridian, dealing with the wintry weather in the northern outposts of the South Atlantic League was another adjustment. His first experience with snow was on Hagerstown’s Opening Night, when the temperature never reached 40 degrees.

Tall and lanky, the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder inevitably has been compared to similarly built players like Bobby Crosby, Troy Tulowitzki and J.J. Hardy. The Nationals used a $750,000 signing bonus to lure him away from a scholarship to play at Louisiana State.

“My junior year when I started talking to LSU and I got the scholarship — that was all I was really thought about,” King said. “Then at the start of my senior year, the pro scouts started coming around … after a while I was like, ‘I might get drafted,’ ” King said. “I was here all the way if they gave me what I wanted and they did, so it wasn’t a very tough decision. This is what I wanted to do, and I am happy with my choice.”

King’s demotion is not uncommon, especially for a player less than a year removed from high school.

“The way he hit in spring training against older pitchers showed he can hit. He was just struggling mightily,” Boone said. “He’s going to be a real good player. The first year is about getting him into a comfort level and getting experience at an entry level. It’s not, ‘Oh, no he’s hitting .182 — what are we doing?’ ”

Note — Right-handed pitcher Garrett Mock made his 2007 debut with Class A Potomac on Tuesday. Mock, who was acquired along with Matt Chico for Livan Hernandez in August, struck out five in six shutout innings. Mock missed the start of the season after having surgery to repair a torn patella tendon in his left knee. He made all 27 of his starts at the Class AA level last season.

“[I was] ecstatic. He worked so hard all winter and was way ahead of the timetable, but then he had some pain in spring training and we backed him off a bit to a more realistic timetable,” Boone said. “He’s still in spring training mode, so we wanted him to get comfortable. He’ll be up there [at Harrisburg] soon enough.”

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