For three months now, Josh Willingham has put up offensive numbers that rival those of the game's biggest sluggers. So when the Washington Nationals outfielder goes into a little rut - even if for only four days - it draws some attention.
Held to only two hits in his past 16 at-bats, Willingham was given a rare night off Saturday as interim manager Jim Riggleman gave him a breather and a chance to rest some mild aches and pains.
"He's a little banged up," Riggleman said. "Just felt like this would be a good day for him to sit one out."
Willingham, who has dealt with back injuries in his career, insisted he's not bothered by anything right now but said he understood why he was out of the lineup.
"Everybody's a little sore at this point in the year, but that's not it at all," he said. "I think I'm getting a day off because I haven't done a whole lot the last few days."
The four-day blip in Willingham's offensive output might not have registered with anyone if not for the torrid pace he has established in the past three months. From May 16 through Aug. 16, he hit .338 with 14 homers, 42 RBI and a 1.060 slugging percentage.
No one is overly concerned that this brief slide might turn into something long-term.
"Nobody can stay as hot as he was," Riggleman said. "Whoever the best hitters in the game are, that's the pace he was on. He was right there with [Albert] Pujols and Manny Ramirez. And even those guys cool off every now and again. It's tough to stay hot so long. He cooled off a little bit, but I think he'll be right back in there [Sunday] and he'll get it going again."
With the Sept. 1 date to expand rosters to 40 a little more than a week away, the Nationals will need to decide whether to promote a couple of young pitchers who could join the rotation for the season's final month.
Washington has been paying close attention all season to the innings being racked up by its young starters and may need to shut one or two down at some point in September.
The most likely substitute appears to be Ross Detwiler, who has pitched well since his demotion to Class AAA Syracuse (2-2 with a 3.41 ERA in seven starts). Shairon Martis, who opened the season 5-0 for the Nationals before faltering, has continued to struggle at Syracuse, going 3-2 with a 5.29 ERA in nine starts.
An intriguing possibility is Matt Chico, who has come back strong from Tommy John surgery and is 2-3 with a 3.68 ERA in nine starts at Class AA Harrisburg. The left-hander, though, is being held to a strict limit of 90 innings this season, and general manager Mike Rizzo said he's not likely to appear in the majors next month because of that.
Zimmerman earns honor
Baseball America published its annual "Best Tools" survey this week, getting the opinions of managers at every level of organized baseball about the best players at different aspects of the sport.
Ryan Zimmerman was voted best defensive third baseman in the National League. Center fielder Nyjer Morgan tied with the Dodgers' Juan Pierre as the best baserunner in the NL.
Among minor leaguers, shortstop Ian Desmond was deemed to have the best infield arm in both the Class AA Eastern League and Class AAA International League. Catcher Derek Norris was voted best batting and power prospect in the Class A South Atlantic League.