READING - Patrolling first base for the Reading Phillies is Nate Espy, who could not wait for the 2003 season to begin.

"Man, we are almost a similar team [to last year] with our position players," gushed Espy. "We know what each other can do. It's a positive comfort level."

One of the R-Phils' key players, Espy, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 208 pounds, played in all but one of the team's 142 games last year, and won the R-Phils' "Iron Man Award." His manager, Greg Legg, has heaped praise upon Espy for his work ethic and preparation. "Nate gives us tremendous worth, work ethic and power in our lineup," said Legg.

"I go out like I always do, work hard, and play as hard as I can," shrugged the veteran first baseman, who is a paragon of preparation and consistency. Last year he hit 14 HR: seven at home; seven on the road; stole a career-high 18 bases in 19 attempts; struck out only 83 times in 517 at-bats; drove in 76 RBI; and was charged with only 8 errors at the bag.

But the R-Phils' anticipated late season surge to the playoffs turned into a field of broken dreams.

"We went out and played hard," he said. "Harrisburg flat out beat us. That's the way sports is. We didn't get it done. There is no excuse."

With the new season underway, Espy and his mates are looking for a good start. "We got to get in a position for the playoffs," he theorized. "We have to peak when the finish line is there."

He is a hard and fast believer in the fundamentals of the game. "This game doesn't change," he offered. "That's one of the great things about it: you catch the ball, you throw the ball."

His five-year minor league fielding record stands in testimony to his view on the fundamentals. During that time, he has committed only 40 errors.

"You can't win a game if you have four errors," he said. "That's not going to cut it."

Of course, solid fielding always helps a pitcher's confidence, especially with a staff as young and inexperienced like the R-Phils. "I'm excited about our arms," continued "Iron Nate." "We have the defense behind them to let them be sure (of themselves)."

That defense includes shortstop Anderson Machado, shortstop/infielder Brian Hitchcox, second baseman Buzz Hannahan, and new third baseman Juan Richardson.

"We may have a pitching staff that is young, but we have a lot of guys who know how to play the game," he added, referring to the 11 of 12 Reading's position players who have played at Double A or higher, including those nine from last year's R-Phils.

In two words, "Iron Nate" calls it a "balanced team." It's also a team that will look to Nate Espy to keep it that way.

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