Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 6:33 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
Their No. 3 hitter was placed on the disabled list with an abdominal strain that will keep him out at least 15 days, quite possibly more. Their No. 4 hitter was held out of the lineup with a mild groin strain, despite his insistence he could play. And their No. 5 hitter was a mid-afternoon scratch due to flu-like symptoms.
The Nationals sure picked the wrong time to face the four-time defending NL East champion Phillies.
"We're OK," manager Jim Riggleman insisted. "This is just something you go through now and then."
Maybe so, but the Nationals certainly found themselves hamstrung heading into Tuesday night's series opener against Philadelphia, with Ryan Zimmerman on the DL, Adam LaRoche out with the strained groin and Michael Morse out with an illness.
The prolonged loss of Zimmerman will be felt most on the Nationals' roster. After aggravating the same abdominal strain that hampered him early in spring training, the third baseman was hopeful rest and treatment would allow him to return quickly. Instead, team officials decided he needed to be shut down for at least five days, necessitating the DL stint.
Zimmerman will be eligible to return April 25, but it's possible he'll need more time than that, especially if he needs to go on a minor-league rehab assignment before he's activated.
"We're certainly not going to rush the process," Riggleman said. "We've just got to really let it get better. We just cannot ask him to play at 80 percent. We've got to let him really get real close to 100 percent."
Zimmerman had been the Nationals' most-productive offensive player through the season's first nine games, hitting .357 with a homer, four RBI and a .486 on-base percentage. And he thought he had taken steps over the offseason and during spring training to keep his body in top shape and avoid this kind of injury. But sliding headfirst into second base Saturday in New York aggravated the strain that he first dealt with in March.
"As much as you work, as much strength as you do, I think it just shows you how fragile your body is," Zimmerman said. "One little thing can throw your body off whack. I wouldn't say it's by any means because none of us work hard enough or aren't in good enough shape. It's just one of those freak things that happens."
With Zimmerman sidelined, Riggleman said Alex Cora, Jerry Hairston and Morse will split duties at third base. Cora started there Sunday against the Mets, with Hairston starting Tuesday against the Phillies.
LaRoche also had to come out of a game in New York when he slid headfirst into second base and aggravated the groin strain he had already experienced earlier in the game while swinging. The first baseman was adamant Tuesday he felt considerably better than he did Sunday and that he could play. He tried to convince Riggleman to keep him in the lineup, to no avail.
"If I was making out the lineup, my name would be in it," La Roche said. "That being said, I don't always make the smartest decisions. That's what those guys get paid to do. We don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on it, but I'm not gonna throw a manager, GM or trainer or anybody under the bus, at all. I'm with them. If this is what they want to do, just cause I don't like it, doesn't mean it's not right."
The absence of Zimmerman, LaRoche and Morse left Riggleman to patch together a lineup that featured 43-year-old Matt Stairs in the cleanup spot, rookie catcher Wilson Ramos fifth and reserve outfielder Laynce Nix sixth.
Riggleman did have a new bat off the bench at his disposal when the Nationals recalled Jesus Flores from Class AAA Syracuse to take Zimmerman's roster spot. The move was a bit surprising, because it gives the club three catchers. But the Nationals needed another right-handed bat, and Flores was the only available one already on the 40-man roster. He'll be used primarily as a pinch-hitter.
The 26-year-old missed most of the last two seasons recovering from major shoulder surgery, but he returned healthy this spring and started four games behind the plate for Syracuse to open the season. Though he had only two hits in 13 at-bats, Flores said he feels his swing is back to where it was before the 2009 injury.
More than anything, the franchise's one-time catcher of the future was simply happy to be back in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park.
"I never thought I'm going to be back here again," the Venezuelan native said. "And now I'm really excited to be on a big-league team again. I feel happy. I feel good to be part of the team again and I'll work hard to help the team whatever opportunity they need me."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.