- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

— While the Nationals did not commit an error Saturday night, their defense was woefully inept Friday - as it has been most of the year. Although the team is doing all it can to fix the problem, there aren’t many attractive alternatives.

Washington’s farm system is virtually bereft of players who could improve the big league club’s defense, and the moves that former general manager Jim Bowden made in the offseason, aimed at improving the National League’s worst offense, have worked exactly as expected - and haven’t helped the defense at all.

“We didn’t have a very good defensive ballclub last year, and they went out there and got some guys that were more to help our offense than our defense,” manager Manny Acta said. “We haven’t had a legit center fielder out there all year.”

The Nationals, who made 123 errors last year, had committed 68 in 73 games this season, so they’re on pace for 28 more gaffes than last year.

Then there are the mental errors, like missing cutoff men or throwing to the wrong base, that allow runners to take an extra base, not to mention the hits that better fielders turn into outs.

The most glaring need is in center field, where utility player Willie Harris has started the last eight games. The Nationals have tried Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes there - without much success - and Justin Maxwell struggled at the plate when he was called up from Class AAA Syracuse. Roger Bernadina, who could be the long-term answer, is still out for at least several more weeks with a fractured right ankle.

“It’s something that is already being discussed,” Acta said. “[Acting general manager Mike Rizzo] is working on it. I think, up until one of our guys are ready to step up, we’re going to need somebody that can be a natural center fielder and handle that position.”

Day off for Johnson

First baseman Nick Johnson was drilled with a pitch in his left leg for the second straight game Friday. On Saturday, Acta decided Johnson had taken enough punishment for a few days. Johnson got the day off Saturday, with Adam Dunn moving to first base in his absence.

“Nick is playable,” Acta said. “He’s beat up. He got hit back-to-back days in the same leg. It’s painful to him still, so I’m just going to give him a day to rest his body.”

Johnson was hit in the left leg in the first inning Thursday night against Boston and came out of the game with a left shin contusion. He was back in the lineup Friday night as he has been most of the year - simply because he has been too valuable for the Nationals to take out.

Stammen to bullpen

When Scott Olsen returns after a stint on the disabled list with left shoulder tendinitis, the Nationals will move Craig Stammen to the bullpen, Acta said after Saturday’s game.

Stammen, who was 1-3 with a 5.49 ERA as a starter, was pitching out of the bullpen at the beginning of last year.

“I’m glad to still be here, I guess,” Stammen said. “Honestly, I want to stick around as a starter. But Scott’s been doing this for a while, and he deserves his spot back. But I’m excited. I’ve been in the bullpen before, in college and a little bit in the minor leagues. It’ll be fun.”

Stammen and Ross Detwiler were the last two starters called up, and thus were believed to be the two battling for the final rotation spot. Stammen didn’t elaborate on a reason why he was the odd man out instead of someone else.

“I was the starter that was either going to go down or get moved to the bullpen, or whatever they decided to do,” Stammen said. “I thanked them for keeping me around.”

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