Wednesday, March 29, 2006

No Church on Monday

When the Nationals come to bat at Shea on Monday to start the 2006, the lead-off hitter won't be Ryan Church. In fact, Church won't even be in the dugout. Instead, it will be Brandon Watson who strides to the plate to lead off the first inning and who takes center field in the bottom of the first.

That Church didn't make the team is somewhat of a surprise. Church was having a great year in 2005, meriting some discussion for the Rookie of the Year honor, until he crashed into the outfield wall in June and injured his shoulder and ribs. He finished 2005 with a .287 batting average, nine home runs and 42 RBIs, but as Barry Svrluga of the Post points out, he wasn't the same hitter after the injury.

When camp began, it appears Church's expectations were different than management's. Church used spring training as a time to ease back into the flow of the game, focusing more on re-gaining his timing and less on the results. And the numbers this month showed: .200 average in 55 at-bats, with two extra-base hits. GM Jim Bowden, meanwhile, told Brandon Watson that if he could hit to the opposite field, bunt for base hits, and steal some bases, he'd make the team. Watson responded with a .311 average, .368 OBP, and seven steals in eight attempts.

Simply put, Watson just took the job away from Church.

Church's response to the demotion is telling: "I didn't think it was a competition." Maybe it wasn't back in February when players reported to camp, but Watson made it one. Maybe Church expected similar deference as a team veteran, albeit on a smaller scale, that Jose Vidro received in the great "Who's Playing Second?" debate. If he did, he shouldn't have, because Church just doesn't have the track record that Vidro has. Church may have had a promising 2005, but when that' s the only bullet point on the major league resume, it's not enough.

Of all people, Church should have known that. He himself secured the starting job in 2005 by having a terrific camp, much better than Endy Chavez, whom the team had tapped as the assumed starter when camp began. Having stolen the job from someone in 2005, Church should have considered the possibility that the same would happen in 2006.

How will Church respond to the demotion? I think he'll post big numbers from the beginning in New Orleans, and we'll see him back in D.C. by the end of April. He's good enough to be in the lineup, certainly good enough to be on the roster. Being in New Orleans will allow him to play every day, which, in essence, merely makes it an extended spring training for a guy who, right now, is hitting .200.

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