- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

JUPITER, Fla. — Manny Acta filled out a lineup card yesterday morning for the 29th time this spring, and for the 29th time the Washington Nationals manager did so knowing it would not look the same Opening Night.

Photos:Portraits of the Nationals

Injuries, precalculated days off and experimentation have prevented the Nationals from fielding their true starting nine even once this spring. And with the team monitoring catcher Paul Lo Duca (knee) and left fielder Elijah Dukes (hamstring) carefully over the final week of camp, Acta might not get to test his Opening Night lineup before Sunday’s game at Nationals Park.

However, nobody in the clubhouse seems overly concerned.

“It makes no difference,” Acta said.

“I think as long as everybody’s healthy and is ready for the season, I don’t think it’ll affect much,” right fielder Austin Kearns added.

The Nationals have every reason to believe their lineup will click once the regular season begins. The additions of Lastings Milledge, Dukes, Lo Duca and a healthy Nick Johnson have bolstered a Washington offense that ranked last in the majors in runs and last in the National League in home runs in 2007.

“We’re going to hit,” Milledge said. “We’re going to score a lot more runs than we did last year.”

Even if they haven’t quite shown it yet this month.

After getting shut out by the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday at Roger Dean Stadium, the Nationals’ spring training team average fell to .260 — fourth worst in the majors. They have averaged four runs a game, lowest in the majors.

It hasn’t helped that plenty of regulars haven’t seen regular playing time.

Lo Duca missed the first three weeks of games while recovering from knee surgery before joining the lineup Friday. Wily Mo Pena, originally the starting left fielder, tore an oblique muscle two weeks ago and will open the season on the disabled list. Dukes, the man replacing him, has since battled his own hamstring tweak. Zimmerman missed several games with a minor hip injury, creating a large hole in the heart of Washington’s order.

“Everyone looks at the scores down here and thinks we’re not scoring runs,” Zimmerman said. “But they don’t really realize that we haven’t had our whole team together. … Come Sunday, we’ll have our [Nos.] 1 through 8 and hopefully score some runs.”

And how will Nos. 1-8 stack up? Acta hasn’t said for sure. He will announce his starting first and second basemen when the team arrives in the District later this week.

But all indications are that Johnson has beaten out fellow veteran Dmitri Young for the first base job and that Ronnie Belliard has held off former starter Felipe Lopez for the second base job.

Which means the Opening Night lineup likely will look like this: 1. Cristian Guzman, 2. Milledge, 3. Zimmerman, 4. Johnson, 5. Kearns, 6. Dukes, 7. Lo Duca and 8. Belliard.

The top of this year’s projected lineup has more potential to get on base and create scoring opportunities. And the bottom of the lineup is strong enough to produce runs on its own.

Neither of those held true last season, with Lopez and Nook Logan unable to reach base regularly at the top of the order and Brian Schneider and others unable to sustain rallies at the bottom.

Zimmerman expects Lo Duca and Belliard to make a significant difference in the seventh and eighth holes.

“I think that’s one of the most overlooked things in this game: getting guys in the bottom of the lineup that can turn it over so you don’t have your pitcher leading off the next inning,” he said. “The depth really helps us, and that’s going to make us a better team.”

Washington’s most-productive hitter also should benefit from having Milledge in front of him.

“If I’m in the 2-hole, it’s really going to hype me up to get on base for him,” said Milledge, who is hitting .348 with a .420 on-base percentage this spring. “It makes you work harder and try to get him get more RBIs.”

The Nationals only can hope it doesn’t take long for their lineup to develop some cohesiveness, especially if Acta can’t pencil in his regular eight before Sunday.

If not during the final week of spring training, how soon do they need their offense to come together?

“The first game, it better,” Johnson said. “That’s when it needs to.”

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