- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It appears that going into next spring, second base will be the most competitive position in the Washington Nationals‘ starting lineup. And if the results of this month are a precursor to that battle, it’s clear who the early front-runner will be.

Anderson Hernandez, acquired from the Mets last month in a deal that sent reliever Luis Ayala to New York, has quietly overtaken the other two middle infielders the team acquired by trade this summer - Emilio Bonifacio and Alberto Gonzalez - and now appears to be the leading candidate to win the starting second base job heading into next spring.

Since his first game with the Nationals on Aug. 20, Hernandez is hitting .340 with 12 RBI and a .417 on-base percentage while proving to be a solid defensive cog up the middle. He started at second base for the eighth time in 13 games Tuesday night, standing out in a stretch that manager Manny Acta said was critical heading into next season.

“The last month of the season, it’s a lasting impression you leave on people,” Acta said. “Going into spring training, whoever plays the best here probably has the upper hand.”

It’s a surprising reversal for the 25-year-old, who had struggled at Class AAA New Orleans most of the season. He hit .301 there in 2007, winning organizational player of the year honors. But his average dipped to .203 in the minors this season, his attitude clouding his performance the longer he languished in the minors.

He played 25 games with the Mets in 2006 and was seen as a possible solution at the position, but he was slowed by back injuries and then blocked by Jose Valentin and Luis Castillo.

“They gave me a chance to be the everyday second baseman,” Hernandez said. “The next year, I played good. I think I did my job in spring training, but there’s no spot. I just said, ‘What do I have to do?’ I don’t want to think about it, but that thing gets in [my head].”

The chance to play every day appears to be a possibility in Washington.

Acta said Hernandez, Bonifacio and Gonzalez are all fairly even defensively, and the spot will likely go to whoever looks the best at the plate. In that regard, Hernandez has an advantage over both players, his plate approach being more refined than Bonifacio’s and his offensive skills more advanced than Gonzalez’s.

Acta is splitting time between the three players based on matchups right now, shielding Bonifacio from left-handers in most cases. But the fact that Hernandez is getting the majority of the starts is a sign of how far he has come.

“I know he was having a tough season in Triple-A,” Acta said. “But seeing him in the past, we knew he was going to fit in well.”

Flores still optimistic

Catcher Jesus Flores, who hasn’t played since suffering a sprained left ankle during a home-plate collision with Philadelphia’s Chase Utley on Sept. 2, isn’t ruling out his chances to return this season.

Flores is still working out with a protective boot on his ankle and said squatting still gives him pain. But he remained hopeful the pain would subside enough for him to play again.

“I said before that I wanted to play last weekend, but I didn’t,” Flores said. “I’ve got to wait.”

He will play winter ball in Valencia, Venezuela, hoping to get more at-bats at the end of a season that has firmly entrenched Flores as the Nationals’ catcher next season. He has hit .256 with eight homers and 59 RBI in 90 games, establishing himself in the majors a season sooner than the team expected.

“I got the chance to play every day. That’s what I want,” Flores said. “But I don’t want to think that I’m done with this year yet.”

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