Notes: Nats earn respect from D-Train

Notes: Nats earn respect from D-Train

WASHINGTON -- According to many baseball experts, the Nationals are expected to have a sub-.500 season in 2007.

However, don't count Marlins left-hander Dontrelle Willis as one of those naysayers who has a grim outlook for Washington. In fact, he believes the Nats are going to be one of baseball's pleasant surprises.

Willis pointed out that the Nats have very good position players -- starting with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- a pitching staff that is being underestimated and a quality leader in new manager Manny Acta.

Willis also agrees with Washington's philosophy of building from within, relying on the farm system to win games. He should know. Because of their young core, the Marlins won the 2003 World Series and also contended for the National League Wild Card in '06.

"They are going to be tough, man," Willis said. "I'm hearing they are going to lose 100 games. I don't think they are going to do that. They are going to be very competitive in this division, and I think they are going to be right there in the end.

"Not only do I have great respect for them, I played against them. I've witnessed what they can do. I don't play in the West. I play in the East, where I see them repeatedly. They have a lot of guys that can play ball, so I don't see where all this 100 losses are coming from. You saw a lot of it this spring. They are very competitive, and they went out there and earned their spots."

You're not going to get an argument from Zimmerman, who also thinks that Washington's pitching staff will be better than expected.

"You lose Livo [Hernandez], Tony [Armas] and Ramon [Ortiz], who are three big-league pitchers, but they had ERAs over 5.00, so it's not a hard thing to replace," Zimmerman said. "I think [Shawn] Hill, [Matt] Chico and the younger arms are a little bit better to run out there every day.

"Not to say anything bad about those three guys, because they are obviously big-league pitchers, but you are not losing three No. 1 guys."

Zimmerman also expects the Nationals to score plenty of runs this season even though they lost Alfonso Soriano to free agency.

"I think our lineup is better even though we lost Alfonso Soriano," Zimmerman said. "With [Cristian] Guzman and [Brian] Schneider, the way he is swinging this year, I think we'll score as many runs as last year."

A special moment: Monday will mark the first time that two Latino managers will make their Major League debut in the same game. Acta will face Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez.

While he is happy to see history in the making, Acta pointed out that he and Gonzalez are qualified to be big-league managers, which is much more important.

"I don't want anything given to me because I'm a minority," Acta said. "Me, Fredi, Ron [Washington] and whomever else is doing this tomorrow, we are qualified to do this. We just hope that we can establish ourselves and keep opening the doors."

New role: Schneider will start the season by hitting sixth, a rare spot in the lineup for him. Normally, he has hit in the seventh or eighth hole, however, both Acta and hitting coach Mitchell Page felt that this is the season that Schneider will hit better than .256, his career batting average.

Page went so far as to say that the Nats' starting catcher will hit .280 or better. But Schneider, whose career high in RBIs is 55, must show that that he can drive in runs in that spot.

Schneider declined to state any numbers he wants to reach in RBIs or batting average.

"I'm up to the challenge," Schneider said. "I'm not going to say that I'm content with where I've been. Whatever it is, I want it to be an improvement from last year. If I don't get a couple of hits per game, I just want to get that one big hit for the team in that RBI spot."

The get-together: Acta had a team meeting on Sunday afternoon to lay out the ground rules.

Acta told the players to ignore experts' predictions about being one of the worst teams in baseball, and he also left them with these words of wisdom: "Don't leave the world without making an impression on anybody."

Down on the farm: Right-hander Jerome Williams pitched six innings in a Minor League intrasquad game against the Double-A Harrisburg Nationals at the Carl Barger Complex in Viera, Fla., on Sunday.

If Williams didn't throw, he would have had 10 days' rest between starts. The righty is scheduled to make his Nationals debut on Friday against the Diamondbacks.

Coming up: Washington will have a chance to prove Willis right about being competitive when it faces him on Monday afternoon at 1:05 ET. Right-hander John Patterson gets the nod after an injury-plagued 2006 season.

Willis, who is 9-4 with a 3.46 against the Nationals/Expos for his career, has given the team fits over the years. Even worse for the Nats, Willis is dangerous with the bat. The southpaw has a .222 batting average with six home runs and 28 RBIs.

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