- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 27, 2010

VIERA, Fla. | Washington Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn has lost track of how many groundballs have been hit his way this spring.

Quick reaction shots, backhanders in the hole, line-huggers that draw him toward the base and the runner. No matter the situation, he’s worked on it.

And for good reason: Dunn is focused on proving he can provide adequate defense at a position where he’s clearly a work in progress.

“I didn’t have an expectation of myself last year,” Dunn said Saturday. “I wanted to go over and play and I didn’t think it would be that hard. It was a lot harder than what I anticipated. Now I know what to expect and now I know what to expect out of myself.”

When Nick Johnson was traded to the Florida Marlins on July 31, Dunn moved from left field to first base, a position he had played only sporadically in eight previous seasons. The switch kept his bat in the middle of the lineup, but Dunn had trouble with his lateral movement and committed eight errors in 67 games at first.

Dunn is embracing the opportunity to learn what he considers a new position.

“I didn’t even know what foot to take the first step with, to lead with, because I’m so used to being on the left side of the field. It’s opposite, you know? … I’d worked over there, but you can’t teach something (in pregame drills). You can work on it, but we had, what, 30 minutes to work on it a day? And then you’re in the game,” said Dunn, who has 23 errors in 194 career games at first.

Over the winter, Dunn used jiujitsu sessions to boost his flexibility and stamina. He’s spent hours during spring training fielding grounders and getting pointers from third base coach Pat Listach, special instructor Tim Foli and special adviser to the general manager Davey Johnson, the triumvirate charged with making him into a credible first sacker.

Dunn is getting better moving side to side, something he was uncomfortable doing last season, when he hit a team-leading 38 home runs and drove in 105 runs. He’s perfecting the ability to dig throws, something general manager Mike Rizzo said he did well in 2009. His 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame, however, is an easy-to-hit target for fielders.

The 30-year-old Dunn still has trouble with balls hit directly at him, and is spending a lot of time learning new responsibilities like his part in rundowns, pickoffs and cutoffs.

“A lot of times, people think that somebody who doesn’t have a position, you can put them at first base. Well, there’s a lot going on over there than to think that just anybody can do it,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. “We think he’s going to be a good first baseman. We’re confident of that.”

Riggleman wants Dunn to be able to field his position — which allows Josh Willingham regular playing time in left field — but has no illusions about Dunn’s primary contributions to his team.

“You want somebody to clean it up and knock in those runs. He’s our guy. … He has that history, he’s a presence in our lineup that demands respect,” Riggleman said.

With 316 career homers, Dunn has plenty of productive years in his future, said general manager Mike Rizzo. The notion of Dunn joining the 500-home run club isn’t far-fetched, he said.

“Several years down the road if he continues at the pace he’s at, we’re going to be talking about Hall of Famer Adam Dunn,” Rizzo said.

Improving his defense would just add to Dunn’s all-around game.

“I think he’s found his home at first base, I really believe that,” Rizzo said. “I think that’s his best position. We’re not asking him to be a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player. We want him to be an average defender and he’s going to work really hard at being it.”

Or, as Dunn puts it: “I’m not going to sit there and say I’m going to be the best ever, but I’m not going to be the worst.”

NOTES: RHP Stephen Strasburg has progressed to throwing to hitters, though they still aren’t swinging at his pitches. Strasburg threw a 12-minute session of batting practice from behind a protective screen Saturday, with the four hitters he faced — INF Eric Bruntlett, C Derek Norris and OFs Roger Bernadina and Willy Taveras, only assuming their stances and not swinging because it was cold and damp. “Just working on pitches, working on location, working on spots,” said Strasburg, who displayed some impressive movement on his pitches. … C Jesus Flores, who is recovering from right shoulder surgery, will not be ready to play when Grapefruit League games begin March 4, Riggleman said.

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