- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

ATLANTA — Nick Johnson was back in a familiar place last night: Batting cleanup for the Washington Nationals.

Activated off the 15-day disabled list earlier in the day, Johnson rejoined the Nationals in Atlanta and found himself in the starting lineup for the first time since he bruised his right heel on June26.

“It feels real good to be back,” Johnson said before last night’s game against the Braves. “My foot feels a lot better than the last time I saw you guys. I’m just happy to be back with the fellas.”

When Johnson originally hurt himself stepping awkwardly near home plate to avoid Toronto Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun, few could have predicted he’d miss a month. But the deep bone bruise was slow to heal, and Johnson wasn’t able to begin a rehab assignment with Class AAA New Orleans until Saturday.

He went 0-for-6 with a walk in three games for the Zephyrs, but with the Nationals’ offense mired in its worst slump of the season, his immediate presence was required.

Outfitted with special high-top shoes to protect his injured heel, Johnson batted fourth last night against Braves ace John Smoltz, hoping he could rediscover his swing in short order.

“I don’t know [how long it will take],” he said. “It’s been awhile. But I’m definitely going to work.”

With Johnson back, the Nationals were able to field their original, projected Opening Day lineup for the first time since May3 and only the sixth time all season.

That was a welcome relief for manager Frank Robinson, provided it worked.

“It’s nice if we win some ballgames,” he said. “It’s always nice to have the lineup that you projected and thought you’d have together for a while. It’s what we feel like is a team you can have success with.”

To make room for Johnson on the roster, Washington designated outfielder Kenny Kelly for assignment. Claimed off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds last week, Kelly appeared in three games for the Nationals, twice as a pinch-runner and once as a late replacement in right field. He did not get an at-bat.

Byrd exonerated

Marlon Byrd’s two-game suspension was lifted yesterday, a surprising reversal of the Nationals outfielder’s punishment for running into umpire Joe Brinkman last month.

Three weeks after hearing Byrd’s appeal, Major League Baseball vice president of administration John McHale overturned league disciplinarian Bob Watson’s original ruling, saying Byrd’s contact with Brinkman on June4 was unintentional.

Byrd was all smiles upon getting the news yesterday afternoon from general manager Jim Bowden. He had hoped all along the suspension would be reduced, but he never believed it would be wiped out altogether.

“I thought in a worst-case scenario, it would get bumped down to one game,” Byrd said. “I’m not sure what his decision was based on, but I’m glad he made it.”

The incident occurred in the seventh inning of the Nationals’ June4 game against the Florida Marlins. Byrd was ejected by first-base umpire Bill Miller for arguing a called third strike as he took his place in left field, then made a beeline for Miller. Brinkman, the second-base umpire, tried to cut him off, and Byrd wound up clipping him and knocking him to the ground.

Outfield merry-go-round

With Johnson back in the lineup last night, Robinson was faced with a new dilemma: Four outfielders, three positions to fill.

The odd man out wound up being Preston Wilson. Brad Wilkerson started in left field, with Ryan Church in center and Jose Guillen in right.

Robinson said he plans to rotate all four through the rest of the season.

“You can only play three outfielders at one time,” he said. “It’ll be a merry-go-round.”

Hampton out

The Nationals caught a break when Braves left-hander Mike Hampton (tomorrow’s scheduled starter) was placed on the DL yesterday with a back injury. Right-hander Jorge Sosa will start in Hampton’s place.

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