Part-timer Church makes full impact

NL notebook

Baseball Week

June 12, 2005

He's a former college pitcher. A 14th-round draft pick by another organization.

Already 26 and in his sixth year of pro ball, technically, he's just a platoon player.

Yet, if he keeps hitting the way he has recently, Washington Nationals outfielder Ryan Church could become the 2005 National League Rookie of the Year -- especially with Colorado's Clint Barmes potentially lost for the season.

Church's enthusiasm is already approaching legendary rookie proportions.

"This is a kid's game and I've grown up just loving it," Church said. "If I had my way I'd wake up first thing in the morning and get over here, but I have to eat and all."

After arriving early to spring training, Church had a 30-minute meeting with general manager Jim Bowden and Bowden's special assistant, Bob Boone. They said they loved his attitude and ability, and he would make the team if he hit.

"I walked out of there with a smile on my face," said Church, who has played all three outfield positions for the Nationals. "I sat down in the clubhouse and I was like, `Man I am pretty amped up right now.' "

He wasn't particularly "amped" when he learned in January 2004 that he and infielder Maicer Izturis were traded from Cleveland to Montreal for pitcher Scott Stewart.

"I was like, `Man, the Expos?' I was kind of panicking, like, `What is going to come out of this?' " Church said. "I talked with my family and my agent and they said this is the best situation for you."

Montreal's organizational player of the year in 2004, Church made his major league debut in August. This March, he won a starting job, but missed the first week of the season with a groin pull. When he returned, he hit .190 in April and was benched.

He's now the left-handed portion of a platoon with Marlon Byrd, but he hasn't looked like a part-timer. Church batted .377 with a .406 on-base percentage to win NL rookie honors for May, and he hit .480 in his first eight games in June.

Dead meat cover-up

Barmes, the Colorado shortstop and leading NL Rookie of the Year candidate, originally said he broke his left clavicle after tripping while carrying groceries up the steps to his fourth-floor apartment. Later, he recanted, saying it was actually a package of deer meat. Why did he fib about what he was carrying? Because the venison was an after-dinner present from Rockies first baseman Todd Helton.

Barmes and fellow rookie Brad Hawpe were at Helton's ranch after Sunday's game, hanging out and riding four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles. Barmes didn't want to bring Helton into his story -- and he didn't want speculation that the injury was caused by an ATV accident. All involved denied any connection between the ATV ride and the injury. The Rockies are buying the story, but they've lost their star rookie possibly for the year.

Quick hits

Now that they are scuffling, some Marlins are secretly bristling at manager Jack McKeon's gruff style. ... At 26, Colorado's Joe Kennedy fits the team's youth movement, but the lefty might be available for prospects.

League notebooks are compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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