- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

NEW YORK — Nick Johnson’s No.24 jersey hung in the dugout. His teammates all honored him by wearing their socks high, just like the 28-year-old first baseman. Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Church wore Johnson’s actual gray uniform pants.

They were touching tributes to one of the Washington Nationals’ most popular players, who broke his right leg in a scary on-field collision Saturday. None, though, was more fitting than the Nationals’ performance on the field during yesterday’s 5-1 victory over the New York Mets.

“Guys said they wanted to go out and win one for Nick, but that’s just one game,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We want to win a lot of games, for ourselves and for Nick.”

After an emotional 24 hours tending to their injured teammate and then learning he should be ready to return next season, the Nationals found comfort in Johnson’s favorite place — the baseball diamond.

They responded with a crisp, well-played game, riding six strong innings from right-hander Tony Armas Jr. and clutch hits from Zimmerman, Alfonso Soriano and others to beat the NL East champions with relative ease.

“It was very important because we showed that we miss him,” said Soriano, who doubled, scored a run and drove in another with a sacrifice fly. “We played very hard. I think this game was very special for us and for the organization because everybody misses Nick Johnson.”

That much was obvious from the moment Washington took the field before a crowd of 44,543 at Shea Stadium. All nine players had their pants pulled high around their knees, an idea that someone came up with before the game and quickly circulated around the entire clubhouse.

Church typically wears his pants all the way down to his ankles, so he knew he would need to find a new pair. Zimmerman noticed several extra ones hanging from Johnson’s locker, so the two borrowed from their teammate and played the game in his garb.

“My pants are made to be over the shoes, so we’re like, let’s go ahead and wear Nick’s,” Church said. “They were just sitting in there.”

And how did they fit?

“A little big in the belly and the [rear],” Church said. “But they did all right. I got two base knocks with them.”

Before the game, the Nationals were a little concerned about their mental readiness for the game. Robinson decided to give several regulars the day off, including Kearns, catcher Brian Schneider and second baseman Jose Vidro, in part to keep their emotions in check.

Those who did play said they were able to keep their minds on baseball once the game began, but most were eager to get it over with and go to the hospital to visit Johnson.

Johnson, who was having a career year, was the recipient of many well-wishes. His cell phone voice mailbox was overflowing with messages, to the point callers no longer could get through.

“I’ve known Nick for a long time, since the minor leagues,” said Soriano, who came up through the New York Yankees system with Johnson. “He’s like my brother.”

Said Armas: “He’s sort of like our captain out there.”

Armas (9-12) was instrumental in honoring the team’s unofficial captain with a victory, allowing one run in six innings without walking a batter to earn his first victory in seven starts. The right-hander, who doesn’t figure to return to Washington next season, has pitched back-to-back quality starts as he attempts to finish the year on a high note.

“No matter how much negative stuff you guys write about us, we’re going to keep on battling out there,” he said. “I know I’ve had a bad second half but keep going forward and keep going positive.”

Armas was aided yesterday by a well-balanced Nationals offensive attack that knocked Mets starter Steve Trachsel (15-8) out in the sixth inning thanks to a steady stream of clutch hits.

Soriano drove in his 95th run of the season with a first-inning sacrifice fly, then ignited a sixth-inning rally with a leadoff double. Zimmerman followed with his second double of the game and 45th of the season to give Washington a 3-1 lead and put Armas in line for the win.

Two more doubles by Brandon Harper and Nook Logan in the seventh, plus an RBI single from Felipe Lopez, put the game out of reach and ensured victory for the Nationals and their injured teammate.

“We miss the guy,” Schneider said. “He’s here with us every day. I know it hurts him not being here, so it was good to get a win. Hopefully, Nick saw the game, saw all the guys with their socks up. We were thinking about him, that’s for sure.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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