- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

SAN DIEGO - On a team that has been though a steady stream of change and upheaval, he has been the one constant. Manny Acta never has to pause and think before writing in the name of his No. 3 hitter on his nightly lineup card. He just assumes Ryan Zimmerman will be there.

So the sight of Zimmerman watching his teammates from the dugout railing for the second straight day while battling a nagging right shoulder injury was equal parts surprising and discouraging for the Washington Nationals manager.

“You have no choice, obviously,” Acta said before last night’s game against the San Diego Padres. “But it’s always tough when you lose your third hitter in the lineup.”

The Nationals may be without their rock for another day or two, though Zimmerman admitted yesterday his shoulder was showing signs of improvement after taking Monday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers off.

“It feels significantly better today than it did yesterday,” he said. “So I think that’s good.”

Zimmerman’s shoulder, which he believes he injured sliding headfirst into second base a week and a half ago in Baltimore, has been examined by doctors who found no evidence of structural damage and didn’t feel the need to have the third baseman get an MRI.

But it remained sore enough yesterday to warrant a second straight day off. Zimmerman took some grounders in the field during batting practice - though he didn’t swing a bat - and Acta said he was available to come off the bench if needed.

“If I had to play today, I probably could,” Zimmerman said. “It’s kind of a risk-reward kind of thing. Do I really want to play right now and risk hurting it even more or take two or three days and get it better and then have four months to play? It just makes sense.”

The absence of one player for only a couple of days wouldn’t normally garner much attention, but Zimmerman isn’t just any player. Since taking over as the Nationals’ starting third baseman, he has missed consecutive games because injury only once, when back spasms sidelined him for two games in June 2006.

The 23-year-old’s only injury of consequence was a broken hamate bone in his left wrist, and that didn’t even force him to miss any games because it happened in November and was healed by the time spring training began.

So these last few days have been a tad odd for Zimmerman, who had the majors’ second-longest consecutive-games streak going at 205 before Acta gave him a day off earlier this month.

“It’s very boring,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. If I didn’t have to come here early and get [medical] treatment, I’d probably come later just for the fact of keeping sanity.”

Zimmerman’s absence leaves Washington, already beset by injuries, with a ragtag lineup. Only three starters from Opening Night were in last night’s lineup: shortstop Cristian Guzman, center fielder Lastings Milledge and right fielder Elijah Dukes (who started in left field for the season’s opener because Wily Mo Pena was on the disabled list).

This month alone the Nationals have lost first baseman Nick Johnson (torn tendons in his right wrist), catcher Paul Lo Duca (broken bone in his right hand), right fielder Austin Kearns (loose bone fragments in his right elbow), second baseman Ronnie Belliard (strained left calf) and backup catcher Johnny Estrada (nerve irritation in his right elbow) to injuries.

Somehow, Acta’s club has managed to play near-.500 ball in May.

“I think we have survived the injuries, and everything is due to the pitching and our defense,” the manager said. “I think that’s been the backbone of those 22 wins so far. The injuries and the struggles at the plate, I think we have compensated with pitching and defense.”

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