PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Catcher Ivan Rodriguez and second baseman Danny Espinosa returned the Nationals' lineup Saturday. Neither had played since the team's last trip to Digital Domain Park against the Mets on Tuesday; Rodriguez felt tightness in his left calf during pregame drills and was scratched from the starting lineup, while Espinosa fouled a ball off his right foot and sustained a contusion that hampered his mobility.
Rodriguez, in particular, has added incentive for getting back into game action as soon as possible: He's scheduled leave camp for three days next week to tend to a personal family matter, manager Jim Riggleman disclosed to reporters before the game.
"Pudge is adamant that he wants to play today, so we're going to work him out here and see if there's any reason not to play him," said Riggleman.
Just in case, the Nationals brought Carlos Maldonado as an extra catcher, but with 75 minutes until first pitch, there have been no lineup changes.
Riggleman said Rodriguez would depart Viera on Tuesday and return late Thursday. The catcher arranged his time off to coincide with the Nationals' lone off day of the spring and will be back with the team Friday.
"He's going to leave town for a few days so he wants to make sure he plays quite a bit," Riggleman said of Rodriguez. "If I don't play him and then he leaves town for three days, I would be comfortable with it, but I don't think he would be comfortable with it. He likes to play."
For now, Rodriguez is cemented in his manager's mind as the Nationals' opening day catcher. What happens after the March 31 opener against Atlanta at Nationals Park remains to be seen. Rodriguez is being pushed hard by 23-year-old Wilson Ramos, who was acquired at last year's trading deadline from Minnesota in exchange for close Matt Capps.
Rodriguez is hitting .238 with two RBIs in eight spring games. Ramos is batting .267 with a homer and two RBIs in 12 games. The Nationals are also using Jesus Flores, who has missed of the last two seasons with a variety of shoulder injuries, behind the plate.
"Pudge will catch (the opener) and then we'll just go from there," Riggleman said. I think (Rodriguez and Ramos are) both going to just catch a lot. Ramos has played and caught his way onto the club at this point. I can't say that he's the second catcher, but he's done nothing to say that he isn't."
Because the Nationals are flush with catchers, they've been heavily scouted by Houston, Boston and other teams in need of backstops. But the Nats are reluctant to deal any of their surplus until later in spring training, in hopes that they can extract more from a potential suitor.
Flores remains a wild card in the catching derby, and he has to prove he's healthy enough to play regularly before he'll be an enticing catch.
"Flores is really coming on swinging the bat," Riggleman said. "I'm not totally ready to say Flores is ready to catch three or four days in a row, and sometimes your backup catcher has to be able to do that. We're going to get Flores some more games, and send him to the minor leagues for some more games - between there and here, some three- or four-day stretches where his arm gets tested a little more. But Flo is really coming on with the bat."
Flores is hitting .130 with a homer and three RBIs in 12 games.