- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

NEW YORK | It’s difficult for the Washington Nationals to unplug Nick Johnson from their starting lineup when he’s hitting .362, delivering production from the No. 2 spot like his solo homer to left Friday night and showing no signs of wear and tear.

But back before Johnson started his surge, the Nationals tethered their lineup strategy to the idea that the first baseman would get his fair share of days off - in hopes of preventing the kind of injury that has sidetracked each of Johnson’s first eight seasons in the majors.

So the need for restraint being what it is, Washington plans to sit Johnson on Sunday for the first time in 11 games.

“We’ve got a lot of games in a row now. We’re going to try to monitor him the best way possible,” manager Manny Acta said. “We really need him in our lineup.”

Johnson is batting .416 since moving to the second spot in the lineup, recording at least one hit in all 10 starts. His homer off Johan Santana on Friday night came when the first baseman punched a fastball on the outer half of the plate just over the left-field wall, the kind of shot he wasn’t hitting much last year in the 38 games before his season ended with a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist.

“He’s in a good position, and he’s getting real comfortable with where he’s at,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “I think power is a byproduct of comfort. He’s got a good approach, and his ability to stay through a ball and use the whole field is just tremendous.”

Young to start rehab soon

Acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Saturday that first baseman Dmitri Young, who started the season on the disabled list with lower back tightness, is almost ready to start a 20-game rehab assignment at Class AAA Syracuse.

Young played nine innings Friday at the team’s extended spring training in Viera, Fla., and Rizzo said his health continues to improve. It remains to be seen, though, whether Young will find a spot on the team’s major league roster once he’s healthy. The Nationals are already stocked with healthy options at first base, and their bench will be similarly crowded once Willie Harris comes off the DL.

Extra bases

Rizzo said Harris, who has been out since April 12 with a strained oblique muscle, is still on track to return during the Nationals’ series in Philadelphia this week. He started in center field for Syracuse on Friday, going 2-for-4. Shortstop Cristian Guzman is also planning to return from a strained hamstring during the series. …

Right-hander Terrell Young is still on a throwing program in Viera, and Rizzo said the Rule 5 pick is still not eligible to pitch in a game. Young’s right shoulder inflammation is “right where we thought it was,” Rizzo said. …

Relievers Steven Shell and Wil Ledezma, who were designated for assignment last Sunday, have until Tuesday to see if they cleared waivers. At that point, Rizzo said, the Nationals will communicate with the players’ respective agents to see if they want to be released or accept a minor league assignment.

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