- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

LAKELAND, Fla. | Dmitri Young stood in the batter’s box in the seventh inning Tuesday afternoon, staring down the pitcher and trying to anticipate his next offering.

It’s a scene Young has played out nearly 5,000 times in his 13-year big league career, but these days he’s the subject of much attention and scrutiny.

The 35-year-old first baseman is now trying to prove to the Washington Nationals he belongs on a major league roster.

“Definitely,” he said Tuesday when asked whether he thinks he’s big league ready.

That seventh-inning at-bat against Detroit Tigers left-hander Nate Robertson might have underscored the sentiment. With a mighty swing, Young belted a two-run homer to left-center in his first appearance in a big league exhibition game in a month.

To Young, that blast (not to mention a ninth-inning single to right) should convince the Nationals to bring him north at the end of the week and place him on the Opening Day roster.

Washington’s coaching and front office staffs have a different plan and informed Young on Monday he will remain in Florida for at least three weeks to get more at-bats in extended spring training before the club decides whether to call him up.

“Even [two-time NL MVP] Albert Pujols goes through spring training and needs to get at-bats,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s a timing thing. Nobody’s doubting anybody’s ability to hit or not to hit. But that being said, all the great hitters, they need at-bats.”

Young didn’t sound pleased about the Nationals’ decision but said he would do “whatever to help the team out.”

Since the club shut him down in July to get his diabetes and physical condition under control, Young has been on a mission to help himself out. Scared straight by his disease when high blood sugar caused his eyesight to falter and his weight to balloon, he recommitted to taking better care of himself.

With the help this winter of John Philbin, Washington’s new strength and conditioning coach, Young began a new dietary and workout regimen both believe has had positive results. At the end of last season, Young weighed close to 330 pounds. He reported to camp this spring at 297 and he has since dropped more weight.

“It’s probably the smallest I’ve been since I’ve been a National,” he said, declining to give an exact number.

Philbin, a former Redskins strength coach and owner of a local training center, had worked with other diabetics before, so he felt he had a good grasp of the challenges facing Young. Philbin set up a program for Young that involved heavy amounts of cardiovascular exercise and strict diet restrictions. No fried foods. No late-night snacks. Small portions.

There were a couple of snags along the way, especially when a strained back kept Young out of all major league games for most of March, but the end result has been impressive.

“He’s right on target,” Philbin said. “He should be ready within a week or two.”

Young, who is guaranteed $5 million this season no matter where he plays, may be impatient about the club’s plan for him. But he seems to have a better understanding now why he needs to be in top physical shape before returning to the major leagues.

When he made his return in 2007, winning NL comeback player of the year honors, he was less strict in his maintenance of his diabetes. He said he would “slack off a little bit,” but he still performed on the field, so no worries.

But when his vision started to go last summer, his outlook changed.

“It kind of puts things like: OK, either do it or else,” he said. “I know I said that before, but when you actually get that scare again, it’s like… I’d be selfish if I didn’t do it. Because I’ve got kids now. I’ve got to see them grow up. I’ve got to see my grandkids.”

The Nationals must now decide when to give Young the opportunity to prove that again.

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