- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Washington Nationals’ Opening Night lineup is finally set. There were no big surprises, except how well the losers of two long position battles are accepting their new roles.

Neither Felipe Lopez nor Dmitri Young showed any bitterness yesterday — at least publicly — about starting the season on the bench. Manager Manny Acta approached each player after Friday night’s workout at Nationals Park, informing Lopez he would back up Ronnie Belliard at second base and telling Young that Nick Johnson will start at first.

“I feel happy for both of those guys [Belliard and shortstop Cristian Guzman],” Lopez said. “I just want to win. If he needs me to go in there and pinch-hit, I’ll be ready. It’s a long season. My moment is going to come, and I’m not going to miss it.”

In the end, Acta’s decisions were straightforward.

He tabbed Johnson after deciding the first baseman was recovered from the broken leg that kept him out all last year and could replicate his solid 2006 season while providing a defensive upgrade over Young. He stuck with Belliard, who came into spring training as the starter and outplayed Lopez for most of camp.

But there was some question as to how the two former All-Stars would handle not starting, particularly Lopez, who said March 18 he would not accept a spot on the bench.

Now that those issues have apparently subsided, the Nationals can turn to figuring out how best to use the two players.

He’ll have plenty of options with each; Lopez should see time at both second and short when Belliard or Guzman needs a day off. Young, a switch-hitter who hit .320 last season, could become a valuable late-inning weapon.

“A guy like Dmitri enables the other manager to bring another guy from the pen,” Acta said. “He’s a switch hitter with some power. We feel it’s a luxury.”

At a combined $10.9 million, both Young and Lopez are an expensive luxury. They appear to be staying put for now, though trade rumors have persisted all spring about Lopez and neither is quite sure how to adapt to a bench spot.

“Pinch-hitting’s hard,” Young said. “I’ll have to talk to [hitting coach and MLB all-time pinch hit leader] Lenny Harris about that. That’s a new role, and I’ve never done it.”

Whether they end up staying with the Nationals or playing somewhere else, however, each player knows they have few options other than to stick it out.

“It’s going to play itself out,” Young said. “I just come here, do my work, help the team win and the rest will take care of itself.”

Nationals sign infielder

Washington signed infielder Olmedo Saenz to a minor league contract yesterday. He will report to Class AAA Columbus.

The 37-year-old Saenz has played nine seasons in the majors. He hit .296 in 179 at-bats for the Dodgers in 2006. He likely would be an insurance policy at third base if anything happens to Ryan Zimmerman or Aaron Boone.

Hill, Estrada progressing

Starter Shawn Hill went three innings in a minor league game in Viera, Fla., yesterday. He threw 50 pitches, and while a team spokesman said he experienced some “symptoms” in his throwing motion, he was able to pitch through it.

He will continue on a schedule that could have him off the 15-day disabled list in time to pitch against the Atlanta Braves on April 13.

Johnny Estrada caught seven innings in the minor league game, going 2-for-3 at the plate. Estrada, who missed all of spring training with an elbow injury, should catch nine innings tomorrow.

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