- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

MILWAUKEE — Outfielder Rick Ankiel was back with the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, taking up residence as a healthy player on the roster for the first time since he sprained his right wrist making a diving play at Nationals Park on May 2.

He was back after an 18-day stay on the disabled list, but he wasn’t back in his usual starting spot in center field.

Instead, with the Nationals facing a left-handed pitcher Tuesday night in Milwaukee, and needing Michael Morse at first base in Adam LaRoche’s absence, manager Jim Riggleman was forced to play shortstop Brian Bixler in left field. Roger Bernadina, who was called up to replace Ankiel on May 7, has become too valuable as a leadoff hitter to be taken out of the lineup.

“The leadoff spot is the key,” Riggleman said. “We know Ankiel’s a good center fielder but at this point, I feel very good about the way both [Ankiel and Bernadina] have played center field.”

Morse being thrust into action at first base leaves the Nationals with a predicament in the outfield. Instead of being able to sub Ankiel, Bernadina or Nix out and sub Morse in when a left-hander is on the mound, Washington is left scrambling some what.

With Ankiel (.235), Nix (.194) and Bernadina (.237) carrying lackluster career averages against left-handers entering Tuesday, Bernadina got the start in center. But with Nix’s left foot ailing, right-handed Bixler was instead called on in left field.

Bixler has played just one career major league game in left field, and it wasn’t as a starter. He was getting time there occasionally at Triple-A before he was called up to the Nationals on April 23, but his experience is limited. Still, with a .250 career average against left-handers, he was the best option Tuesday night.

“He’s such a good athlete,” Riggleman said. “He might be the fastest guy on the team with the exception of Bernadina. I’m comfortable [with him in left] but I haven’t seen him play that much so I’m just kind of putting the foot speed and the athleticism out there.”

The Nationals plan to ease Ankiel back in after the long layoff — but they’re also evaluating what they have in Bernadina, and Nix has been the team’s best hitter to this point. It’d be tough for Ankiel to take at-bats away from either, especially as another left-hander, but that’s part of the juggling the Nationals will have to do.

“We made a point when Rick got hurt to not just put [Bernadina] out there to really let’s take a look and see what’s happening out there because we’ve got to make some calls on Bernadina down the road,” Riggleman said.

Ankiel, who would certainly be given the advantage when it comes to his arm in the outfield, may also see some time at first base, despite not having played there competitively since — by his estimate — high school. He has, however, taken grounders there in the offseason. If he can fill in at first adequately, it would free up Morse to be the right-handed outfielder the Nationals are lacking.

“We’ll look at just trying to keep them all sharp and take advantage of a hot hand here and there and see where it goes,” Riggleman said.

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