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03/26/2013 5:08 PM ET

Duke likely to take on emergency starter role

JUPITER, Fla. -- If Chris Young is, indeed, out of the picture, the Nationals will likely turn their attention to a hurler currently in their clubhouse to be the sixth starter, if ever needed.

In fact, lefty Zach Duke happened to be standing close when manager Davey Johnson was asked Tuesday who might fill that role.

"He just walked by, probably," Johnson said.

Duke figures to be the long man out of the Washington bullpen this season, and perhaps the team's only lefty in the bullpen. It could be a similar scenario to Tom Gorzelanny's last year, a lefty long man (though not the only southpaw in the bullpen) who could be used to spot-start.

Of Duke's 189 career appearances (eight with the Nationals), 168 have been starts. He's appeared in seven games this spring, with a 5.40 ERA.

"Zach's still learning how to pitch out of the 'pen," Johnson said. "He's been a starter his whole life. I thought he did a good job last year coming in. But it'll be a learning experience for me and him, and how much he can do coming out of there, since he's the only one out there."

Johnson said he wouldn't consider the durable Craig Stammen an option, though Stammen logged 88 1/3 innings last season and has proven he can handle lengthier stints.

Young, signed to a Minor League contract late in Spring Training with an invitation to big league camp, was granted his unconditional release on Tuesday. He had made it clear throughout that he enjoyed being with the Nationals organization, but if a Major League opportunity came through, he'd take it.

"Obviously, if he gets a big league starting job, he's gone," Johnson said. "So I think that's all up to him. He'd be awfully good insurance."

Harper continues torrid spring hitting

JUPITER, Fla. -- If Bryce Harper's left thumb is still bothering him, as his manager insists and the training staff fears it is, you wouldn't be able to tell.

Harper has turned in a remarkable last few days, reaching base in each of his last 10 plate appearances and recording a hit in nine of them (he walked in his final at-bat against the Marlins on Tuesday in Jupiter).

Harper is hitting a staggering .476 with five doubles, a triple, three homers, 14 RBIs and 10 runs. What's even more impressive is that Harper has started each of his 23 games played, and hit most often against Major League-caliber pitchers.

According to Baseball Reference's Spring Training stats, which list opposing pitcher quality on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 considered MLB-quality pitchers), Harper's opponent rating entering Tuesday was a 9.1. His three at-bats Tuesday came against Henderson Alvarez, announced Tuesday as the Marlins' fourth starter.

"I'm not worried about [Harper peaking too soon]," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's been swinging the bat good since he got here."

What does concern the Nationals is the left thumb injury that Harper sustained Friday while fighting off a fourth-inning pitch from Tigers starter Drew Smyly. Harper singled, and has been hitting the ball well since, but Johnson said Harper got jammed again Tuesday and the Nationals may consider resting him a few days.

"Usually those are just kind of nagging injuries, but if it gets real bad you give him a little cortisone in there and that quiets it down," Johnson said. "But I don't know if it's that bad."

Harper is expected to see the team doctor soon before the Nationals decide how to plan for the final week of camp.

"Just something you've got to kind of live with and hope you don't get jammed for a while, but if you're hitting good, you need to get jammed once in a while," Johnson said, adding he doesn't know if Harper would play in the exhibition Friday in Washington.

"He needs to have some playing," Johnson said. "You don't want to just shut a guy down and let him have five days off before the opener."

Haren feeling ready for season despite rocky spring

JUPITER, Fla. -- Dan Haren is pleased to not have to return to Jupiter again this spring. And he welcomes just the thought of the regular season on the horizon.

For the second consecutive time at Roger Dean Stadium -- and third time in a row, overall -- the right-hander gave up at least four earned runs in six innings or less.

Tuesday, the Marlins tagged him for five earned runs and seven hits (four home runs) in six innings. His ERA to end the spring rests at 6.39.

"I felt good today, actually," Haren said. "I made one or two mistakes, but overall, I'm ready for the season. It's monotonous for everybody at this point. I would've liked better results, but it's not going to linger. I'm ready. I'm confident."

Now, he'll face a lengthy layoff and will not pitch until the Nationals' fourth game of the season, April 5.

"I've never done anything like that, but the extra time isn't the worst thing in the world for everybody," Haren said. "It's a long, grueling season, so a couple extra days here and there is not bad. I don't know how we're going to play it, but I just know we're leaving soon, which is good."

Haren entered the spring -- he was signed to a one-year deal this winter to anchor the back end of the Nationals' rotation and provide a veteran presence in the clubhouse -- trying to maintain consistency in the mechanics he re-discovered after battling some injuries this year, and also focusing on working inside to right-handed hitters. He ends camp confident in both aspects of his game.

"Spring is actually a lot more grueling than the regular season just because of a lot more day games, drills, you're hitting, running, doing first-and-third stuff every day," Haren said. "So I was most worried about that. And I feel really good right now and I'll get plenty of time between my first start, too. I'm happy. Of course, I'd like to go in with a better feeling, but once the lights turn on, it's a different story."

Worth noting

• Johnson said Drew Storen will pitch on the Minor League side on Tuesday. Henry Rodriguez will pitch Wednesday, and Rafael Soriano will throw back-to-back outings on Wednesday and Thursday.

• Because the split-squad date comes so late in camp, the Nationals aren't likely to send many Major Leaguers to Jupiter on Wednesday as most of the veterans stay behind in Viera to face the Braves. Minor League right-hander Taylor Jordan will make the trip to face the Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium.

• When asked about Sports Illustrated picking the Nationals to win the World Series (ace Stephen Strasburg graces the cover of one of the magazine's regional editions), Johnson said: "I don't care. It's nice. Better than being picked to come in last."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.