- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

LAKELAND, Fla. — Manny Acta doesn’t plan on naming a starting second baseman until “right before the season starts.” Maybe the Washington Nationals manager should consider how the two men fighting for that job — Felipe Lopez and Ronnie Belliard — would handle the news.

Asked yesterday whether he would accept a backup role, Lopez offered an emphatic response.

“No,” he said. “Bench? No. I’ve already said that. [Heck] no. I feel good out there. The numbers do not show that I’m hitting the ball hard, playing great defense. I feel … great. You can put that, too. I feel great.”

Lopez’s spring training numbers (.205 average, one homer, two RBI) indeed pale in comparison to those of his fellow middle infielders. After hitting a two-run homer yesterday in the Nationals’ 9-1 exhibition win over the Detroit Tigers, Belliard is batting .459 with three homers and seven RBI.

Shortstop Cristian Guzman, who also entered camp hoping to beat out Lopez, is hitting .356 with two homers and 10 RBI.

Acta won’t make any firm decisions for another week, but he spoke highly of Belliard after yesterday’s game.

“We feel very comfortable with him at the plate,” the manager said. “He’s been around, and he does have quality at-bats. He knows what he’s doing at the plate. We’re very happy to have him.”

But in what role? Belliard, who turns 33 next month and is due to earn $1.6 million this season, has expressed a willingness to come off the bench before, and he reiterated his stance yesterday.

“I’m not going to get upset,” he said. “Whatever they decide, it’s good to me.”

Lopez, 27, is making $4.9 million in his final year of arbitration following a disappointing season in which he hit .245 with nine homers and 50 RBI. Club officials have commended him for his positive attitude and work ethic this spring, but they have been careful not to reveal his eventual role with the team.

“Whatever happens, I would like to stay here,” Lopez said. “But I’m not going to be happy on the bench. [Heck] no.”

Asked whether he would seek a trade if he’s not a regular, Lopez replied, “I’m not saying that. I’m just saying I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m not going to be happy on the bench.”

Redding battles

Tim Redding’s pitching line yesterday — five scoreless innings — would suggest the veteran right-hander was in top form against the Tigers. In truth, Redding said he felt miserable, battling the same flu-like bug that has swept through the clubhouse the last few weeks.

“If I could tell you what I felt like all morning, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said.

Perhaps Redding showed the Nationals something, though, with his gritty performance. Though he allowed six men to reach base and had little command of his breaking pitches, he managed to get the job done when he needed to.

“He challenged a very good lineup and got away with it,” Acta said. “That’s what you’ve got to do if you don’t have all your pitches working.”

Redding, who’s in line to start the third game of the season, has posted a 2.81 ERA in four spring starts, holding the opposition scoreless in three of those.

“I’m extremely happy with the way I’ve gone this spring,” he said.

Extra bases

Outfielder Alex Escobar and catcher Humberto Cota were reassigned to minor league camp. Cota, though, exercised an out clause in his contract that allows him to become a free agent.

With Johnny Estrada destined for the disabled list, the competition for Washington’s backup catcher job is down to Jesus Flores and Wil Nieves. Team officials have said Flores, 23, will make the big league roster only if he’s going to be able to play on a regular basis. …

The Nationals will have their only day off of the spring today. No players are required to report for work except for right-hander Jason Bergmann, whose turn in the rotation falls today. Bergmann will pitch in a minor league game in Viera to get his work in.

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