- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Spring training is all about routine. Players wake up early in the morning, are on the field stretching at precisely 9:30 a.m., run through defensive drills after that, then batting practice, then prepare for that afternoon’s exhibition game.

So the Washington Nationals’ lone break from that daily ritual yesterday — their one and only day off this spring — was relaxing yet also disconcerting for a group of players that doesn’t know what to do with free time right now.

If nothing else, this brief respite offers a chance to regroup for what promises to be an intense final week before the Nationals head north.

Way back in mid-February, The Washington Times detailed the five biggest questions going into spring training. Now seems an appropriate time to revisit those subjects and see what has (or hasn’t) been resolved.

1. Is the pitching healthy?

The pre-eminent story line entering camp remains the most uncertain topic entering the final week. Shawn Hill reported to Space Coast Stadium confident his surgically repaired right arm and left shoulder were 100 percent, and his performances in bullpen sessions and against live hitters the first two weeks seemed to corroborate that assertion.

But Hill’s forearm started feeling tight and then painful when he tried to throw, so he was shut down. An MRI revealed no structural damage, but the pain wouldn’t go away. So Hill received a cortisone shot to numb the pain and is now attempting to rebuild his strength and stamina in an attempt to pitch through whatever ails him.

All that is known is Hill won’t be ready for Opening Night. Meanwhile, John Patterson insists he feels great. Trouble is he hasn’t come close to regaining his old velocity.

All of which leaves manager Manny Acta on the verge of announcing that his Opening Night starter will be … Odalis Perez, a 30-year-old left-hander who signed a minor league contract one week into spring training.

2. Who’s on first?

In theory, this position battle remains unsettled. Acta has said he won’t declare Nick Johnson or Dmitri Young his starting first baseman until a day or two before the opener.

Those who have watched both players this spring, though, know Johnson has won the job. Proving once and for all he has recovered from the broken leg that forced him to miss the entire 2007 season, Johnson looks like his old self again. He’s driving the ball to left field, moving around the bases with no trouble and making smooth plays in the field.

3. How do the new faces fit in?

Lastings Milledge, a brash 22-year-old with immense talent, is enjoying a strong spring and looks poised to become a star in center field.

Elijah Dukes, a 23-year-old with a checkered past, has performed on the field and stayed out of the news off it. With Wily Mo Pena out with a strained oblique, Dukes likely will open the season as the starting left fielder.

4. What will Lo Duca say?

Few current or former players were more prominent subjects of the Mitchell Report than new Nationals catcher Paul Lo Duca, who didn’t say a public word for two months after the report was released.

But upon arriving in Florida, Lo Duca issued a written and then verbal apology. He never explicitly admitted taking steroids and HGH, but it wasn’t hard to read between the lines.

Lo Duca’s bigger issue this spring has been his surgically repaired knee. He will make his game debut tonight against the Houston Astros.

5. Will Lopez force his way into the lineup?

Ronnie Belliard has clearly outplayed Felipe Lopez, but there are other factors to consider in the second base competition. Lopez, who makes $4.9 million, stated in no uncertain terms this week that he won’t accept anything other than a starting job. Belliard, who makes $1.6 million, says he will do whatever is asked of him.

They Nationals have one week to resolve that — and every other — issue.

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