The Washington Times - April 12, 2011, 10:30AM

The Nationals begin what will be a stretch of at least 12 games without their All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger third baseman tonight when they open a three-game series against the Phillies with Ryan Zimmerman on the bench.

Zimmerman, who is out with an abdominal strain until at least Sunday, 4/24, is not a replaceable player in the Nationals’ lineup. They’ll miss his defense, of course, but most likely not nearly as much as they’ll miss his .357 average and .486 on-base percentage in the No. 3 slot in the lineup.

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But the Nationals have no choice but to try to put together a combination that will work well enough to keep them moderately competitive until Zimmerman returns.

There are a few ways they could do this.

First, they could go with the type of lineup they used Sunday in New York. They did come out of that game with a win, but it’d be tough to say that the starting lineup was truly the reason for that since 18 of the team’s 25 players were used at some point during the victory.

That lineup was:

Ian Desmond SS
Rick Ankiel CF
Jayson Werth RF
Adam LaRoche 1B
Michael Morse LF
Danny Espinosa 2B
Ivan Rodriguez C
Alex Cora 3B
Pitcher

But that may not be the one you always see during this Zimmerman-less stretch. Cora and Jerry Hairston Jr. could split the time at third base and Hairston could bat higher up in the lineup, like perhaps at leadoff or in the two-hole. It might also be time to let Danny Espinosa (.280 average, .406 OBP) take his hacks in the No. 2 spot. Wilson Ramos will also be catching at least 50 percent of the time and he’s capable of hitting higher in the order as well.

Here’s one combination:

Ian Desmond SS
Danny Espinosa 2B
Jayson Werth RF
Adam LaRoche 1B
Michael Morse LF
Wilson Ramos C
Rick Ankiel CF
Alex Cora/Jerry Hairston Jr.
Pitcher

There are plenty of ways this could go but there is one truth that remains no matter how the players move around him. With Zimmerman out, Jayson Werth now has to bear an increased load to drive in runs. He’ll move down to the No. 3 spot in order to do that, but it’ll all depend on how the two players in front of him are reaching base — making the No. 2 hitter all the more important to help the Nationals stay afloat.