LOWDOWN BEFORE THE SHOWDOWN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

First base

Kevin Millar/Jeff Conine

Javy Lopez vs. Nick Johnson

The Lopez experiment didn't work, making this position a question mark for the Orioles. Millar is the simple solution here, and he is adequate defensively. But Lopez, previously a starting catcher, doesn't want to be a full-time designated hitter, so this could be a carousel of players. And that's not ideal for the infield's anchor position. Johnson (below) could be the best player on the Nationals if only he would stay healthy. He hits for average and has a little pop. He's also above average defensively.

EDGE / / Nationals

Second base

Brian Roberts vs. Jose Vidro

This one is all about health. Roberts (below) had an All-Star breakout season in 2005, but a nasty elbow injury in September made him questionable heading into this year. Few players work harder, so Roberts should eventually be back to form as a pesky leadoff threat and Gold Glove-caliber second baseman. Vidro was an All-Star, but injuries have limited his effectiveness the past two seasons. His range isn't anything special, but he gobbles up most of what is hit to him. And he can be a vocal team leader. EDGE / / Orioles, with an asterisk for health reasons

Shortstop

Miguel Tejada vs. Royce Clayton

No competition here. Tejada (below) might have wanted out of Baltimore in December, but he's here for the start of the season. And that gives the Orioles one of the best in baseball. Cristian Guzman was a major disappointment last year and injured his shoulder this spring. Enter the veteran Clayton, a solid insurance plan for the Nationals, but no Tejada.

EDGE / / Orioles

Third base

Melvin Mora vs. Ryan Zimmerman

The old guard pitted against the new one. Mora (below) has established himself as a quality third baseman after years as a utility player. He led the team in home runs and will hit .300 when healthy. One has to wonder how his pending free agency will affect him. Zimmerman, the Nationals' first-round draft pick last season, was at the University of Virginia this time last season. He's a star in waiting, a highly regarded defender with developing power.

EDGE / / Orioles, at least for another year

Right field

Jay Gibbons vs. Jose Guillen

Talk about a contrast in styles. Gibbons is an old-school-type slugger, hard worker and team player who can make the routine plays. Guillen (right) is one of the most talented players in baseball with a powerful arm and explosive bat. But his intensity and temper have derailed what could have been a perennial All-Star career. Guillen is the better player; Gibbons is the better teammate. EDGE / / Nationals

Center field

Corey Patterson/Luis Matos/Nick Markakis

vs. Marlon Byrd/Brandon Watson

Patterson (right), who was obtain-ed in an offseason trade with the Chicago Cubs, is the guy the Orioles want to be their starting center fielder, but can he be consistent enough with the bat? The Nationals love Watson's speed atop their order and gave him the job late in spring training over Ryan Church, who is more polished.

EDGE / / Even

Left field

Jeff Conine

Kevin Millar

vs. Alfonso Soriano

Amazing that the Orioles could be less stable at this position than the Nationals. Conine likely will get the majority of starts here, and he'll give his full effort every game. Markakis, 22, is the wild card. He looks ready, but the games that count haven't started. Soriano is an absolute mystery. The Nationals picked him up from the Texas Rangers during the offseason because they need his bat. But Soriano (right) had never played outfield before, and he originally refused before giving in March 22. The results could be messy, but his offense is worth the experiment.

EDGE / / Nationals

Starting rotation

The Nationals have a better 1-2 punch with durable Livan Hernandez and immensely talented John Patterson, who seemed to finally take the next step in 2005. But Washington has little depth and must hope retreads Pedro Astacio, Ramon Ortiz and often-injured Tony Armas can provide stability. The Orioles don't have that established ace -- yet. But Daniel Cabrera is one of the most talented young pitchers in the game and Erik Bedard also has plenty of promise. Rodrigo Lopez (left), Kris Benson and Bruce Chen are all solid.

EDGE / / Orioles, because of depth

Bullpen

This is no contest. The Nationals have the reigning NL Fireman of the Year in Chad Cordero (left) and several established major leaguers to surround him, but it hurts that top setup man Luis Ayala is out for the season. The Orioles have to use second-year pitcher Chris Ray as closer and have only one established and healthy reliever in LaTroy Hawkins.

EDGE / / Nationals

Catcher

Ramon Hernandez vs. Brian Schneider

Hernandez (left), the team's most significant free-agent signing since Miguel Tejada, is lauded for his ability to handle pitchers. He also can quash a running game and handle a bat. The only knock on him is durability. The unheralded Schneider has become a team leader and spokesman. A blue-collar, gritty type, he is considered one of the better defensive catchers in the National League, and his offense is adequate.

EDGE / / Orioles, slightly

Bench

The Orioles have little power and lack experienced hitters off the bench. The Nationals built their bench with veterans such as Royce Clayton, Robert Fick and Damian Jackson, but injuries already have sapped it.

EDGE / / Nationals

Manager

Sam Perlozzo vs. Frank Robinson

It's an unfair comparison. Longtime baseball man Sam Perlozzo is in his first full year as a major league manager. Robinson (left) has done this gig off and on for three decades. Robinson has been criticized for how he handles his pitching staff, but he was a contender for NL Manager of the Year in 2005. And Perlozzo can get only an incomplete until we see how he handles his own team.

EDGE / / Nationals.

AT RFK STADIUM

MAY 19, 7:05 P.M.

MAY 20, 7:05 P.M.

MAY 21, 1:05 P.M.

AT CAMDEN YARDS

JUNE 23, 7:05 P.M.

JUNE 24, 1:20 P.M.

JUNE 25, TBA

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