Tough calls await Davey Johnson when Nationals’ injured players return

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Late Tuesday night, Washington Nationals bullpen coach Jim Lett looked to his left, and to his right, and saw only rows of empty chairs. In a 7-6, 12-inning win over the New York Mets that saw the Nationals empty their bullpen down to long reliever Ross Detwiler, Lett was a lonely man.

But in the coming days, overcrowding, not emptying, will be the issue for the Nationals’ bullpen.

Right-hander Brad Lidge, recovering from surgery to repair a sports hernia, was scheduled to make his second rehab appearance with Single-A Potomac on Wednesday night. Fellow righty Ryan Mattheus, dealing with a partial tear in the plantar fascia of his left foot, threw off a mound Wednesday for the first time since he went on the disabled list May 22.

Lidge said Tuesday he expects to be ready to return as soon as this weekend. Manager Davey Johnson said Mattheus, who’ll take fielding practice off the mound Thursday, is “a candidate to come back pretty quick.” And the Nationals are going to have to figure out a way to make them all fit.

“[The decisions] are going to be pretty tough,” Johnson said. “The fact is, I’ve had discussions with the trainers and the doctors on who’s the safest to bring back. And it goes then, who is the best to bring back, who is throwing the best.

“Then it comes down to who will we lose to make room for them.”

The Nationals bullpen is lefty-heavy with four southpaws to three right-handers. The latest addition, Michael Gonzalez, had an opt-out in his contract that played into the Nationals deciding to add him last weekend.

Only Craig Stammen has an option remaining on his contract, and the fact that he’s been one of the team’s best relievers with a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings entering Wednesday makes his demotion unlikely. Mattheus also has a minor league option remaining, giving the Nationals the choice of sending him to Triple-A.

What the Nationals could do, however, is go for a 13-man pitching staff — especially with six straight games in American League parks, where they’ll use a designated hitter, starting Friday. Third catcher Carlos Maldonado has been dealing with a sore back since the Nationals were in Miami last week, and Washington has been operating with a 24-man roster because of it. Maldonado, who said Wednesday his back was feeling “a little better,” still hasn’t taken batting practice.

Maldonado was a candidate to be removed from the roster when Jesus Flores was healthy and able to return to the lineup last weekend. Jhonatan Solano also is on the roster, but the Nationals would have to designate him for assignment, potentially losing the organization’s third catcher. With Sandy Leon (high ankle sprain) heading to Viera, Fla., on Thursday to continue his rehab and begin playing in games, the Nationals would be left vulnerable if they suffered another injury to their catchers.

The roster gymnastics to this point mostly have been focused on filling the holes created by an injurious first two months. But as several of those players get close to a return, figuring out who stays and who goes has become their latest quandary.

They have choices, but the time for decisions is nearing.

“It’s probably something I’m going to have to address before we leave town,” Johnson said, sitting in the dugout Wednesday on the second-to-last day of the current homestand. “Maybe as soon as I get through with this conversation.”

NOTES: Michael Morse most likely will serve as the Nationals’ designated hitter when they begin their American League tour Friday with six games in Boston and Toronto.

c Chad Tracy still is hurting after surgery to repair a torn right adductor muscle last week, but the veteran bench player said doctors told him he could be back as quickly as six weeks.

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