- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

ATLANTA | Johnny Estrada is finally back in the major leagues, capping a three-month odyssey of a rehab assignment that took him through three levels of the minor leagues and nearly included a fourth. But whatever sense of normalcy the catcher got Friday by dressing in a major league clubhouse again was quickly erased.

Here’s the latest twist: Estrada started against the Atlanta Braves after being activated from the 15-day disabled list, and the Washington Nationals had three other catchers watching him from the dugout.

The return of Estrada, who has been out since April 30 trying to strengthen his right elbow after offseason surgery, gave the Nationals four catchers, an unusually large supply at a position that hasn’t played out anywhere near how the team expected it to this season.

Estrada and Paul Lo Duca were scheduled to be the Nationals’ top two catchers when Washington signed both of them before this season. But with injuries sidelining both of them, Jesus Flores won the starting job a year sooner than expected - a development that has turned Lo Duca into a utility player and left Estrada returning with a need to prove he can contribute.

“We have to take a look at him and see where he’s at right now,” manager Manny Acta said. “It is July, we do have four catchers, and we have to make some decisions.”

Though the Nationals have enough versatility on their bench to keep extra catchers, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s impending return will mean the Nationals need to clear a roster spot possibly within a week. The supply of catchers could go down in a number of ways, trading Lo Duca or releasing Estrada or Wil Nieves being the most likely options.

But Estrada, who saw time in rookie ball, Class A and Class AA during his rehab and was called up instead of heading to Class AAA Columbus, doesn’t plan to make the Nationals’ decision easy.

He was having trouble throwing effectively to second base when he was placed on the DL, but he said his arm is back to full strength and nearly pain-free.

“I’m planning on playing well, so hopefully it’ll work itself out,” Estrada said. “I don’t know what [general manager] Jim [Bowden] has in the works.”

Zimmerman improving

Zimmerman went 1-for-4 with a walk in his second game at Class AAA Columbus last night after going 3-for-10 in two games with Class A Potomac. He was 1-for-3 in his first game with the Clippers, and Acta said Zimmerman went to his left to make a diving stop - an encouraging sign given the third baseman’s labral tear in his left shoulder.

“He continues to feel good, so he’ll be here sooner rather than later,” Acta said. “… We can’t anticipate anything until he gives the OK.”

Extra bases

First baseman Dmitri Young was a late scratch from Friday’s lineup because of high blood sugar. Young missed the Nationals’ last two games before the All-Star break with right lower back tightness but hit in the batting cage during the team’s Thursday workout and said before Friday’s game the pain had subsided enough that he could play. …

Odalis Perez said he expects a $1,500 fine to be the only disciplinary action the league takes after the pitcher was ejected for arguing the second of two balk calls by umpire Angel Hernandez on July 8. Perez said he will appeal the fine, however, adding “it’s not fair” that Hernandez has called four balks on him in nine years, including two in the third inning of the July 8 game.