- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

If the Washington Nationals‘ 5-0 loss to the Houston Astros on Sunday wasn’t a perfect microcosm of their season-long struggles, it at least was a fitting way for them to head into the All-Star break.

Following the latest loss, their major league-leading 12th shutout of the year, players hurried to dress and catch flights out of town for a three-day respite before resuming the season later this week. One notable exception, though, was Ryan Zimmerman, who like his teammates will be leaving town but won’t be taking a break from baseball.

Zimmerman, out since Memorial Day with a small tear in his left shoulder, will be in uniform the next two nights in Salem, Va., serving as designated hitter for the Class A Potomac Nationals. He will move on to Class AAA Columbus from there, and if all goes well, there’s a chance he will be activated off the disabled list by the time Washington returns to the field Friday night in Atlanta.

There may be no more important development for the Nationals between now and October.

“It’s a big lift,” teammate Kory Casto said. “Somebody said it the other day: It’s nice having guys come off the DL instead of going on. That’s going to be huge for us, to get another bat back in the lineup.”

Zimmerman, who is hoping his extensive rehab over the last seven weeks will allow him to avoid season-ending surgery, doesn’t know for sure when he will be ready. But the young star knows the time is fast approaching.

“I think it’s finally coming to an end, and I’m taking that next step,” he said. “So it’s exciting.”

The Nationals certainly could use the infusion his return would represent. Several other key players have succumbed to injuries this season, but the loss of Zimmerman for the last 45 games has been particularly harsh. When he was first shut down May 26, the Nationals were seven games under .500 and scored an average of 3.9 runs. Since then, they have gone 14-31 while averaging only 3.4 runs a game, a significant drop-off.

And none of that takes into account the defensive effect the absence of Zimmerman (and earlier, right fielder Austin Kearns) has had on this club.

“Once those guys went down, our defense went from being in the top two or three teams in the league all the way to the bottom,” manager Manny Acta said. “That’s how important those guys were defensively, not to mention our offense.”

Acta could have used Zimmerman in his usual No. 3 spot in the lineup Sunday, when Houston’s Brandon Backe (owner of a 5.07 ERA when the day began) whitewashed the Nationals for seven innings. Washington threatened only in the second and third innings and each time bumbled its scoring opportunity.

The most unusual moment of the day came in the second, with Ronnie Belliard standing on second base and Casto trailing him at first. Pete Orr hit a sinking line drive to center field that was nearly caught by Houston’s Darin Erstad but narrowly skipped the turf before bouncing into his glove.

Belliard, though, thought Erstad had made the catch and didn’t see third base umpire Kevin Causey rule it a hit. So he raced back to second base, just as Casto (who realized the ball had fallen in) was arriving behind him.

Comedy ensued, with Astros second baseman Kazuo Matsui tagging, in succession, the bag, then Belliard, then Casto, unsure which of those moves would produce an out. Second base umpire Charlie Reliford was confused for a moment, too, at first ruling Belliard out before realizing it was Casto who had been forced out on the play.

Both runners remained with one foot on the base until a final decision was rendered, not wanting to take a chance.

“Either way, one of us is out,” Casto said. “It was weird. I’ve never had that happen. And even the umpire, he [messed] it up at first. It was a really strange play.”

The Nationals squandered a third-inning rally in far more conventional fashion, with Willie Harris getting caught stealing, Kearns grounding into a force out with two on and Belliard striking out.

They managed only two hits the rest of the way, another woeful offensive performance from a team that has scored one run or fewer in 22 percent of its games this season.

Which is why even the possible return of a star third baseman by week’s end may not be enough to turn things around.

“It might make a difference,” Acta said. “But a guy like Zimmerman is not going to come up in every inning. We need a few more guys to step it up.”

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