- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

— The Ryan Zimmerman Shoulder Watch reached Day 5 yesterday, and it may require season-long attention.

Zimmerman was out of the Washington Nationals‘ lineup for the fifth straight day and likely won’t return until tomorrow’s series finale against the Arizona Diamondbacks at the earliest.

“It hasn’t gotten worse at all, and that’s what you’re looking for,” the 23-year-old third baseman said before last night’s game. “I’ll be back hopefully by the end of this series, but if not we’ve got an off-day Monday, and that’s an extra day. Hopefully at the latest we’re shooting for when we get home [Tuesday against the St. Louis Cardinals].”

Regardless of when he returns, Zimmerman admits he could be dealing with shoulder troubles straight through September. He remains confident he won’t need to spend any time on the disabled list, but he also knows he may need to learn to play through the pain.

“I don’t know if it will be back to where I want it until the season’s over and I have a chance to rest it for more than a week,” he said. “I want to play, and if I’m going to have to play through a little bit of pain, I don’t really see any problem with that. It’s just a matter of making sure I can’t hurt anything further and being able to handle the pain without having to take pain medicine every day.”

What at first looked like a minor injury - the result of sliding headfirst into second base in a game at Baltimore on May 18 - has instead turned into a two-week-long saga. Zimmerman was able to play six straight games after hurting himself - in fact, the injury wasn’t even made public until May 24 - and was scheduled to take just one game off Monday in the District.

He hasn’t appeared in a game since, missing the Nationals’ entire Western trip to date, a significant blow for a club that already is without several other regular position players and is struggling to produce any kind of offense.

Washington entered last night’s game with a .233 team average and .354 slugging percentage, each the lowest mark in the majors. Manager Manny Acta was quick not to blame his club’s struggles on the lack of Zimmerman in the lineup, though it certainly hasn’t helped to lose a player who was hitting .309 with three homers in his last 14 games.

“We all know it’s a team,” Acta said. “It’s not about one player. Obviously it helps to have your third hitter in there, especially a guy like him. But on any single day, one guy’s not going to win the game for you.”

Any number of Nationals regulars are laboring at the plate, but perhaps the most notable ones of late are first baseman Dmitri Young and left fielder Wily Mo Pena.

Since returning from a back injury May 16, Young is hitting just .175 with three RBI and one extra-base hit, creating a void in the heart of Washington’s lineup.

“I know he’ll hit because that’s what he’s always done,” Acta said of last year’s NL comeback player of the year. “I’m not worried about him. If there’s one thing he can do, he can hit.”

Finally given a chance to play every day for the first time in his career, Pena has provided neither the power (one homer and four doubles in 111 at-bats) nor the plate discipline (27 percent of his outs have been on strikeouts) the Nationals expected from the 26-year-old.

“If anybody tells you that they were expecting Wily to hit one home run to this point, they were lying to you,” Acta said. “Maybe we were expecting more. But the season’s still young, and there’s over 100 games to go. He’s going to have a chance to keep playing and see if he can bounce back.”

Pena may get plenty more chances, but he was one of three regulars out of the lineup for last night’s series opener at Chase Field. With Arizona’s Micah Owings (who holds right-handed hitters to a .196 average) on the mound, Acta went with a lineup heavy with left-handed hitters.

Pena, Elijah Dukes and Felipe Lopez were all benched, replaced by Ryan Langerhans, Rob Mackowiak and Willie Harris.

“We’re trying to throw a few left-handers out there to see if that can spark some offense for us,” the manager said.

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