- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

BALTIMORE — Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson asked first baseman Nick Johnson how his strained back felt yesterday morning.

“I feel pretty good,” Johnson said.

Music to Robinson’s ears.

“Good, you’re in there,” the Nationals manager told his left-handed cleanup hitter.

Johnson was a surprise addition to yesterday’s lineup. Robinson initially said Johnson, who has missed the last five games with a lower back strain in his left side, wasn’t going to play until Tuesday, when the Nationals open a three-game series at Toronto.

But after watching his team go 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-15 with anyone on base Friday against the Baltimore Orioles, Robinson changed his mind.

“He’s the one that made the decision when we talked to him, tested him, double-checked, talked to him, covered everything and he wants to play,” Robinson said. “I would have liked him to have had today, tomorrow, and then Monday off. The way we’re going, though, Nick Johnson I feel is that important right now, let him play. If we’re playing decent baseball or whatever, I would insist him take the next three or four days off.”

Since creeping to within four games of .500 on June 9, the Nationals were just 3-10 going into yesterday’s game with the Orioles. If the Nationals are going to start winning before the All-Star break, Johnson needs to be in the lineup.

Johnson, who went 0-for-2 with two walks in yesterday’s rain-delayed game, admitted he’s not fully recovered, but said his latest injury is something he can play with.

“It’s very frustrating, if you can’t go out there and do it, you’ve got to get where you can,” said Johnson, who leads the Nationals with a .312 batting average. “I’m about 98 percent.”

Clayton hits third

Robinson also tinkered with other parts of his lineup yesterday, batting shortstop Royce Clayton third for the first time this season and moving second baseman Jose Vidro into the No. 2 hole.

Coming into yesterday’s game, Clayton was 5-for-8 with two doubles in his last two games. This was just the eighth time in Clayton’s 16-year big-league career that he has batted third. The last time was April 6, 1997, when Clayton played for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Houston Astros.

Yesterday, Clayton went 1-for-3 with one RBI and a walk.

“I’m excited about it. I look forward to the challenge,” said Clayton, who’s batting .262. “Whatever reason he’s [Robinson] doing it, he has a good reason. I never question any place I’m put in the lineup. As long as I’m in the lineup, I’m happy.”

Patterson’s day after

For nearly the past two months while he was on the disabled list, the key for John Patterson was how he felt the day after he pitched.

After his first major league start since he went on the 15-day DL on April 28, he said his right arm feels fine.

“I feel like I threw yesterday, I’m sore in all the right spots,” Patterson said. “Normally with my arm, it’s the second day, I can tell the day after how it’s going to feel the following day. We took extra time and extra precaution to make sure that when I did come back, I would be able to continue on for the season. It seems like we made the right decision in doing that.”

Patterson (1-1, 3.41 ERA) missed 57 games on the DL, but he was outstanding in his first game back. In Friday’s series opener against the Orioles, Patterson pitched six strong innings and allowed two runs — one earned — on six hits on 82 pitches.

“I wanted to go six innings and 90 pitches, and I got six innings and under 90 pitches,” said Patterson, whose next start is Thursday in Toronto.

Armas talks

Right-hander Tony Armas Jr. (6-4, 4.44 ERA) wasn’t in a talkative mood Friday, when he learned that he was going on the 15-day disabled list with a right forearm strain and the club was activating Patterson. After declining to speak with reporters Friday, Armas broke his silence yesterday.

“It caught me off-guard,” Armas said of going on the DL. “I knew I was going to miss at least a start, but nobody told me nothing. Nobody called me or told me. I’ve got to look at it in a positive way. It’s going to help me get that swelling out of there.”

Armas, whose DL start is retroactive to last Tuesday, will miss his next two starts. Armas is eligible to come off the DL on July 5 and could make another start for the Nationals before the All-Star break.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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