- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Willie Harris didn’t become a regular in the Washington Nationals’ lineup last season until June 23, when his batting average stood at .161. From that point on, he hit .279, belted 10 homers and became the Nationals’ most consistent offensive performer.

Now that he’s back in Washington’s lineup on a somewhat regular basis, Harris only can hope to duplicate the kind of production he turned in a year ago under similar circumstances.

After spending the better part of the season’s first 2 1/2 months on the bench, Harris got his sixth straight start Tuesday night. The way the veteran utilityman has produced at the plate and in the field, manager Manny Acta can’t afford not to pencil him in.

“Right now, he’s got the hot hand,” Acta said. “He’s playing real good defense. His energy rubs off. Our fans love him, too, and why not? I love him. …

“He has really proved this week that he can help us in a lot of ways.”

Harris noted how his game improved last season once he began getting regular at-bats. And though he still knows his role here is a complementary one, he also knows it makes a difference to be in the lineup on a regular basis.

“It’s huge,” he said. “You get more reps. You get to face a pitcher more than once, as opposed to pinch hitting. But my role is my role. Whatever they want me to do, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not gonna complain about at-bats or playing time.”

Chico pays a visit

The last time Matt Chico set foot in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, he was packing his bags and dealing with the reality of a demotion to the minor leagues.

That was May 28, 2008, before the left-hander learned he had a torn elbow that would require major reconstructive surgery.

Back in the District on Tuesday for the first time since, Chico was in much better spirits. His arm feels great, and he’s made some significant strides in his recovery from the Tommy John procedure he underwent 11 months ago.

“I just haven’t had any problems up to this point,” he said. “No setbacks or anything.”

Chico has made three rehab starts for low-Class A Hagerstown, allowing just three runs in 11 innings. He’ll throw a bullpen session Wednesday in front of coaches and front office officials and then continue his rehab at Class AA Harrisburg.

If all goes as planned, Chico hopes to be ready to rejoin the Washington rotation in September, taking one of the spots that’s likely to become open when the Nationals shut down several of their young starters.

“I feel like I’m ready now,” he said. “But obviously I need to get my innings up. And then getting back up to this level, it’s going to depend on how I’m throwing and if there’s a spot open.”

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