- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

HOUSTON | With Ryan Zimmerman gone for a second day and his usual No. 3 spot in the lineup vacant, the Washington Nationals are finding out just how creative they have to be to make up for the third baseman’s absence.

Zimmerman was in North Carolina attending his grandmother Ilene’s funeral Saturday, and manager Manny Acta said the Nationals thought he might be back in time for at least part of Saturday night’s game with the Houston Astros. Acta said if Zimmerman did make it back, he would be limited to pinch-hitting duties before getting back in the lineup Sunday.

Without Zimmerman, who is playing in his first All-Star Game on Tuesday, the Nationals rolled out their second change to the middle of the order in as many days. They kept Nick Johnson in the third spot but moved Adam Dunn from fourth to fifth, putting Josh Willingham in the cleanup spot to break up their two left-handed hitters against Astros lefty Mike Hampton.

Willie Harris, who started at third Friday night, was replaced by Ronnie Belliard on Saturday. Harris got tagged hard by Astros catcher Ivan Rodriguez while making a leaping attempt to score in the ninth inning Friday, but Acta said the utility player wasn’t injured.

“We’re just trying to get Ronnie some playing time - especially against Hampton, because he’s hit him well in the past,” Acta said.

Cristian Guzman hit in the second spot for the second straight game. Acta said that was only because Zimmerman wasn’t in the lineup, rather than a sign the Nationals are ending their experiment with the shortstop in the No. 6 hole.

Burnett impressive early

Lost in the struggles of the Nationals’ late-inning relievers on this road trip - Joe Beimel’s costly throwing error Tuesday night, the three-run homer Mike MacDougal gave up Thursday that killed any chance of a comeback and the runs both gave up Friday - has been the impressive work of Sean Burnett.

The left-hander has pitched 4 1/3 shutout innings on the road trip, allowing just one hit. It continues Burnett’s impressive start with the Nationals after coming over from Pittsburgh in a June 30 trade. He gave up a game-tying home run to the Marlins’ Cody Ross in his first appearance with the team July 1 but hasn’t allowed a run since.

“He’s been really good for us, as good as anticipated,” Acta said. “That sinking fastball at 90 mph, it helps him against the righties because it sinks down and away from them. And then he’s got a good breaking ball for the lefties and for the righties. He’s got a starter’s repertoire. That’s what makes him effective against both lefties and righties.”

This season, righties are hitting .186 against Burnett, and left-handers are batting .177.

Rotation not set yet

Acta said Thursday that John Lannan and Scott Olsen will start the first two games after the All-Star break but wasn’t ready Saturday to reveal the rest of the rotation.

“It will be announced as soon as we make that decision,” he said.

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