- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2008

HOUSTON — The Washington Nationals demoted Matt Chico to the bullpen yesterday and announced fellow left-hander Mike O’Connor will replace the struggling starter in the rotation.

O’Connor will start Saturday night against the Florida Marlins; Chico was available to pitch in relief last night against the Houston Astros.

“We just want to release Matt from some of that tension that he’s having every five days going out there,” manager Manny Acta said. “And we want to give O’Connor a shot. He pitched well at Triple-A, and we still see him as a starter.”

Chico’s removal from the rotation seemingly had been a possibility for two weeks, amplified each time the 24-year-old took the mound and lost. In seven starts, he was 0-5 with a 6.87 ERA, and after recent outings admitted he was “pressing.”

Chico has never been a reliever before but said he was fine with the club’s decision and hopes the change will get him back on track.

“I was gripping the ball way too tight, trying to make that perfect pitch and ended up leaving balls over the middle,” he said. “I think just the change of scenery … hopefully it’s going to help me get back to where I want to be and get back to the starting rotation.”

The switch puts O’Connor back in the Washington rotation for the first time since 2006, when the pitcher from Ellicott City, Md., went 3-8 with a 4.80 ERA. He did not pitch in the majors last season and posted a 7.07 ERA at Class AA Harrisburg.

But O’Connor impressed team officials with a new arsenal of pitches this spring, including a devastating slider that was absent in 2006. After going 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA at Class AAA Columbus he earned a promotion to the Washington bullpen.

The 27-year-old said he will be less nervous about his first start this time around than he was two years ago as a rookie.

“I think I’ve gotten a little better from then,” he said. “It’s still a big deal, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it like I did the first time.”

Acta said the club did consider recalling right-hander Jason Bergmann, who has thrown 14 consecutive scoreless innings with Columbus, but wanted to give O’Connor a legitimate chance first.

“I can’t wait to see him,” the manager said. “And probably it’s not going to be a one-start type of thing, because we don’t know how he’s going to go out there the first time.”

Working with Milledge

Lastings Milledge, who has misplayed several fly balls in center field, continues to work on his positioning and reading of balls off the bat. He shouldn’t feel any pressure, though, to turn things around because Acta insisted his job is not in jeopardy.

The 23-year-old said he feels most comfortable in center field over the corner positions, though his defensive play to date has proved less-than-stellar. He got a bad jump on Lance Berkman’s seventh-inning drive to the wall Tuesday night, ultimately allowing the Astros to tie (and eventually win) the game.

Acta said Milledge tends to play shallow, relying on his athleticism to make up ground. The club’s coaching staff is working with him to position himself better to handle deep fly balls.

“It’s not a concern,” Acta said. “We’re going to play him in center field and make a decision at the end of the season or maybe before whether he’s the center fielder of the future here or maybe he’s going to have to move to the sides. Right now, just keep working. I’m not concerned, because I’m not moving him.”

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