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For Owings, a chance to re-invent career

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VIERA, Fla. -- Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo first saw Micah Owings on the ballfields in Gainesville, Ga., where Owings was a standout high school player, driving the ball out of the ballpark at an astronomical rate.

Owings could always hit, from those very first days he saw him, Rizzo says. But Owings could pitch, too. And that's what he did. From Forsyth Central High School, where he set a state record with 69 career home runs, he went on to Georgia Tech and then to Tulane.

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Owings helped lead Tulane to its second College World Series in 2005, when he hit a team-high 18 homers in 61 games and was named Conference USA Player of the Year, while striking out a club-best 131 hitters in 122 2/3 innings pitched. He played first base and pitched, while teammate Brian Bogusevic won a team-high 13 games from the mound and himself hit .328 with 25 RBIs.

"They were the one and two starters and their three and four hitters," Rizzo said. "They could both hit, and they could both pitch."

So when Owings first began considering making the full-time transition from pitcher to position player, eight years after he was taken by the D-backs -- for whom Rizzo was scouting director -- as a pitcher in the third round of the First-Year Player Draft, a spot in Nationals camp was as natural a fit as anywhere.

"He can rake," Rizzo said. "He's a big, strong guy with power, but he can also hit. He was a legitimate force when he came into the batter's box in the big leagues [as a pitcher]. He's got a hitter's mentality, even when he was a pitcher, and he's got a great work ethic and is a guy that I really enjoyed being around. It's not a real stretch that he could be a good Major League hitter."

Owings owns a career record of 32-33 on the mound, the first three years of his career primarily as a starter (two with the D-backs) and the final three as a reliever. In those six seasons, he's hit .283 in 205 at-bats, with nine homers and 35 RBIs (both third among big league pitchers in that span).

But as his opportunities to pitch dwindled, the idea of changing positions became more and more a possibility. Owings was released by the Padres last October after fighting for a spot on the team a year ago and getting only six chances to pitch in the big leagues. The Nationals came calling, with a Minor League contract and invitation to Spring Training.

From there, Owings says, some instincts kicked in again. Sort of like riding a bike -- but more challenging.

"I think the body just adjusted to it," Owings said. "I can tell, especially those first couple days when I got back to that everyday kind of routine and getting in there, the body started -- the legs more than anything -- to have a heavy feel. I give these guys a lot of credit, the guys who've done it for a long time and do it every day. It's something for me to work on."

Owings has had opportunities to do so this spring with the Nats -- when he played left field for the first time in Kissimmee last week, the first batter ripped a sharp line drive to him that he caught without any trouble -- but he still stands as a long shot to make a team loaded with a talent and depth. He's gone 3-for-13 with two RBIs, playing infield and outfield, as manager Davey Johnson has tried to get him as many looks as he can early in camp.

"He's done a good job at first," Johnson said. "Got a good break on the ball hit to him in left. But this is a big haul for him."

While re-learning more than one position at a time may be a tough hill to climb, it still allows Owings to put his athleticism on display and can afford him more opportunities, the more positions he can capably play.

"For me, it's balance, to get the work in, knowing what's enough -- ground balls and fly balls -- and swings. Not trying to overdo it, but making sure I get the work in that I need," Owings said. "I take a lot of pride in being out there, because I know what it was like to be on the mound. So I have to do the best I can to pick up those outs for the team and for the pitchers."

Owings has sought counsel from players like Rick Ankiel, a former National and perhaps the most well-known contemporary pitcher-to-position player convert, as well as former D-backs teammate and current Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin.

"I've always appreciated the game and respected the guys that get to this level, and the way they do it, day in and day out," he said. "Just the opportunity is humbling in the first place, and I'm really just having a lot of fun doing it."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }