Nationals go back to Church

Nationals go back to Church

WASHINGTON -- After he was optioned to Triple-A New Orleans, Nationals outfielder Ryan Church said he would be back in the big leagues in two weeks. It actually took 16 days, as he and infielder Brendan Harris were called up on Thursday afternoon, while starting center fielder Brandon Watson and catcher Wiki Gonzalez were optioned to New Orleans.

The news comes almost an hour after Washington fell, 13-4, to New York. The Nationals have the worst record in the Major Leagues at 2-8, are on a five-game losing streak and are not scoring enough runs.

"It's more of a reaction," manager Frank Robinson said of the moves. "We need to do something here to get this club going. Are these two moves going to do it? I don't know. But we had to do something. I think it makes us a little better ball club."

Robinson said that Church will be the everyday center field, replacing Watson. Church is hitting just .130 (3-for-23) with a home run and two RBIs in seven games for New Orleans, but that doesn't seem to concern general manager Jim Bowden.

"He is hitting the ball hard and had some tough luck," Bowden said. "He has had a good attitude in New Orleans."

The Nationals are hoping that Church can regain his form from a season ago, when he hit .287 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs. He entered this spring as the starting center fielder, but was demoted to the New Orleans after hitting .200 with 10 walks. Some in the organization felt Church was going through the motions.

"We'll see what Church can bring to us," Robinson said. "He is not swinging the bat very well down there."

Harris' stock has risen since he played great baseball in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .376 in 22 games this offseason. According to Robinson, Harris gives the Nationals some flexibility, serving as Ryan Zimmerman's backup at third base, while Damian Jackson will be used a pinch-hitter or a reserve in the outfield.

The Nationals have been very pleased with Harris' attitude. He took his demotion very well during Spring Training and the team rewarded him with a trip to Washington during an exhibition series against the Orioles.

The Nationals are not finished making moves. Bowden acknowledged that he is already in trade discussions for offense and pitching.

"I'm very concerned about the ERAs our pitchers have," Bowden said. "I have concern about the low batting averages our hitters are having. We can't afford to have this night in and night out."

Washington had seen enough of Watson and Gonzalez. Watson was supposed to be the table setter, but he didn't score a run and was 5-for-28 (.179) this season. The center fielder was not working the count, and he was swinging at almost every pitch that came his way. In his last at-bat on Thursday, Watson struck out on three pitches.

Robinson had a meeting on Thursday morning with Watson to relax him and assure him that he was going to be in the big leagues for a while. But after Thursday's debacle, the skipper changed his mind.

Watson was politically correct after learning about the move, but according to Robinson, the center fielder didn't take the news very well.

"After this game today, it just felt like something has to be done with this ballclub," Robinson said. "He is struggling right now, and maybe he'll go down there and relax a little bit and get back on track and come back in a short period of time to help us. He is capable of doing that. I am sure he feels like he didn't get a fair shake."

After having a good Spring Training, Gonzalez played in only two Major League games and went 1-for-4. With Gonzalez out of the picture, Matt LeCroy steps in as the backup catcher. LeCroy is a liability behind the plate, and Robinson acknowledged starting backstop Brian Schneider will play almost every game.

"Is it the best thing for us? Not really. I really loved having Wiki here," Robinson said. "Schneider catches a lot of ballgames when he is healthy. Very rarely now is he going to get a rest."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.