- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — For 10 days, they worked out among themselves across four sun-baked practice fields, getting back into shape and a baseball mind-set.

All along, Washington Nationals coaches and front-office officials watched closely, hoping to draw some early conclusions on the state of their team and those players who are fighting for jobs.

But there’s only so much that can be gathered from those morning, intrasquad workouts, which consist of only bullpen sessions, fielding drills and batting practice.

No, the real evaluation period of spring training begins tonight, when the Nationals open their exhibition season against the Florida Marlins two hours down the road in Jupiter. Suddenly, manager Manny Acta, general manager Jim Bowden and their staffs have actual, in-game evidence of a player’s performance level.

Not that anyone’s going to make or break his chances in the first Grapefruit League game.

“The first two or three games, I don’t put much into it,” Acta said. “It doesn’t mean if you do well, I don’t notice it. But I don’t take so much into consideration if you do bad or something.”

Acta will have plenty to watch tonight. Second-year left-hander Matt Chico will start against Florida’s Scott Olsen and will pitch two innings, with rookie right-hander Garrett Mock behind him.

Most of the regular position players will make the trip, except for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Dmitri Young and the two catchers still working their way back from offseason surgeries — Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada.

But the focus will be on first base, where Nick Johnson returns for his first organized game since breaking his right leg Sept. 23, 2006.

Johnson — who attempted to come back last season but could not overcome the lingering pain in his thigh and hip from the titanium rod and screws inserted following his injury — has looked and felt strong in camp while participating fully in drills.

But until he stands in the batter’s box against a live pitcher, fields a hard smash to his right in the field and slides hard into third base in an actual game, neither Johnson nor the Nationals truly will know how close he is to 100 percent.

“It’ll be fun to get out there and just do everything, to be in a real game and see how the leg feels,” Johnson said. “I want it to hold up.”

Baserunning could be Johnson’s toughest test. He ran through a sliding drill with teammates yesterday for the first time and struggled.

“It could have been better,” said Johnson, who was slow to get up from the slides and walked gingerly afterward. “I was never a good slider in the first place. I think it will be a little better when game time comes, where I have to just get down there and do it. Just during a game, just go. I can’t be thinking about it. If I think about it, then I will be a mess.”

The Nationals will be thinking plenty about Johnson in the next month as team officials decide whether to give the starting first baseman’s job back to the 29-year-old or instead to Young, last season’s NL comeback player of the year.

Johnson gets first crack tonight. He’s expected to play three innings and possibly get two at-bats.

Of equal interest to Washington’s coaching staff and fan base is the ongoing competition in the middle of the infield, where Felipe Lopez is trying to beat out either second baseman Ronnie Belliard or shortstop Cristian Guzman for a spot in the lineup.

Lopez, coming off a miserable 2007 in which he hit .245, will get a chance to make an immediate impression tonight. He will start against the Marlins at second base with Guzman at shortstop. Lopez has come to camp reinvigorated and determined to win back the starting job that once was his.

“I know what I have to do, and I know what I have to be, so I really don’t care what anybody says,” he said. “If I am here to win a position, it’s not a big deal to me because I’ve been there, done that, and I’m not afraid of it. I’m ready to play.”

Though Belliard and Guzman were deemed starters at the outset of camp, Acta has made it clear Lopez is capable of surpassing either.

“He can move on from last year,” the manager said. “He has so much talent, and the attitude he has shown in camp … you can tell the difference. It is up to him. He needs to keep it up. He is ready to compete and ready to face whatever comes his way. There has never been a doubt about his talent.”

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