- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

HOUSTON | Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, on his way to North Carolina for his grandmother’s funeral, was out of the Washington Nationals’ lineup Friday for the first time all year.

Zimmerman’s grandmother Ilene died Wednesday in Pinehurst, N.C., at 82. Services are scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and manager Manny Acta said Zimmerman will probably be back for at least part of Saturday night’s game against the Houston Astros, though not in time to start.

In Zimmerman’s absence, Nick Johnson moved to third in the lineup, Cristian Guzman jumped back up from sixth to second and Willie Harris started at third base.

Pitchers hitting well

It’s usually the case that any offensive contribution whatsoever - even as something as small as a sacrifice bunt - is a bonus from the Nationals’ pitching staff. In the team’s first 75 games this season, Nationals pitchers went 10-for-112 with just three RBI.

Something has changed, at least for the time being - the team’s pitchers are on a legitimate hot streak at the plate.

Entering Friday, the Nationals’ pitchers had eight hits in their past 18 at-bats and had driven in five runs. That’s two fewer hits and two more RBI than they had all year before the current stretch.

Neither Acta nor pitching coach Steve McCatty could point to a difference in technique. McCatty said the pitchers’ batting cage work is the same as it always is, and he only tells them to take the ball the opposite way and refrain from pulling it.

But with a young group of starters and a couple of good athletes in the group (Jordan Zimmermann and Craig Stammen, most notably) the results have spiked.

Even John Lannan, who had just three hits before this season, has gotten into the act. He went 1-for-1 with a sacrifice bunt Thursday night, giving him four hits for the year. He has already posted four sacrifice bunts after registering six last season.

“They kind of take pride in getting better at that kind of stuff,” Acta said. “In the past, we’ve just had some guys that weren’t that good of an athlete or been around and really couldn’t care much about that stuff. But we’re trying to instill that into their minds, that they could help themselves.”

Acta unfazed by talk

During the Nationals’ 9-4 loss Thursday, MASN commentator Rob Dibble took the team to task, saying some players were “mailing it in” and others weren’t doing enough to point out the lack of effort.

Asked about the comments Friday, Acta disagreed but didn’t fire back.

“I don’t think [they’ve quit], because I see them play hard every single day,” Acta said. “I could really care less about what anybody says up there on radio or TV, because I can’t listen to them. I’m managing the team, and everybody has a right to an opinion. That’s why I moved to this beautiful country.”

Injury updates

Catcher Jesus Flores, who has been out since mid-May with what turned out to be a stress fracture in his right shoulder, is having a CT scan next week to make sure the bone in his shoulder has healed, Acta said. The team hasn’t backed away from its original prognosis that the catcher will miss the rest of the season.

Center fielder Roger Bernadina is working with team physical therapist and rehab specialist Liz Wheeler to strengthen his fractured right ankle, but he still isn’t able to run hard.

And first baseman Dmitri Young, whose rehab assignment at Class AA Harrisburg was stalled when he aggravated his back injury, started his rehab again Thursday. That means the Nationals have another 20 days to decide what to do with Young.

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