- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — The four-time All-Star catcher the Washington Nationals signed to a $5 million contract in December hasn’t crouched behind the plate yet and just started to take swings off a tee Friday.

The veteran backup they signed to a $1.25 million contract in January is coming off surgeries to both his left knee and his right elbow and yesterday was put into what the manager called “Operation Shutdown” until further notice with tendinitis in that same elbow.

Which leaves Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada watching spring training games from the dugout railing, and the Washington Nationals hoping one or both of their top catchers will be ready four weeks from tonight when Nationals Park opens for business.

“Sure, I’d like to have both of them, so I can take a look at them, and they can take a look at our pitchers firsthand,” manager Manny Acta said. “But right now, we’ve just got to get them healthy. Because it’s March 30 that counts, not here.”

Indeed, if Lo Duca and Estrada each is healthy and on the Opening Day roster, all will be forgotten.

Until then, the Nationals can only try to make do with a 23-year-old who’s supposed to start the season at Class AA (Jesus Flores) and a melange of nonroster catchers (Chad Moeller, Wil Nieves and Humberto Cota) with minimal big league experience.

Such is life when a club’s top two catchers came to camp injured. Lo Duca, who signed a one- year, $5 million contract in December, hurt his left knee while working out in New York the following month and needed arthroscopic surgery.

The prognosis all along was for the 35-year-old to be ready to return March 15, and he remains optimistic that will happen.

“Keep in mind, you’re trying to get ready for Opening Day, not for here,” he said yesterday. “I’m taking baby steps. … Yesterday’s the first day I really didn’t feel any pain squatting. So it’s making progress. I just need to get a little stronger.”

Lo Duca, a career .288 hitter who will succeed Brian Schneider after the team traded him to the New York Mets, may be cleared to start catching in the bullpen tomorrow — a key step in his recovery process.

Even if Lo Duca passes that test, he must learn the entire Washington pitching staff in time to feel comfortable catching each individual by the start of the season.

“That’s my concern,” he said. “I think everything else will be OK. I think the knee will be fine. It’s just getting to know these guys and getting into game situations, which is invaluable. It’s key. I’m hoping by [March 15], I’ll be able to suit up and play as many games as I can and get to know the guys.”

Estrada has managed to get a few bullpen sessions in with some of the Nationals’ top pitchers, including John Patterson and Shawn Hill, but he was limited to one, eight-minute session a day during the first two weeks of camp.

And now, the team has shut him down completely.

Estrada, who signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract, isn’t sure exactly what caused his elbow to flare up. Whatever the case, he hasn’t gotten back to 100 percent. An MRI taken Friday revealed tendinitis and inflammation, so he’s restricted from all baseball activities until further notice.

“I’m not too worried yet,” he said. “If we were sitting here with two weeks left before the season, then I would be worried. I’m just trying to listen to what the trainers are telling me. I’m taking their advice and doing everything I can to be ready.”

The Lo Duca and Estrada injuries have left the Nationals in a precarious situation this spring. Flores, who arrived to camp a week late himself because of visa issues in his native Venezuela, has received the bulk of the time behind the plate thus far in the exhibition season.

Moeller, an eight-year veteran with a career .224 average, and Nieves, who owns a .161 average in 63 career games, have joined him behind the plate.

Until Lo Duca and Estrada are cleared, that’s the way it will have to be.

“Me and Paulie are in the same boat,” Estrada said. “I’ve been able to do more than him. We have our work cut out. I imagine those last couple weeks of camp, we’re going to be getting our work in and doing the majority of the catching.”

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