- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

After missing three games with a stomach virus that left him weak and unable to play, outfielder Josh Willingham turned a corner Friday, swinging in the batting cage before the Washington Nationals’ game against the New York Mets.

Manager Manny Acta said he would consult with Willingham about his availability, but there’s a good chance Willingham could be back in the lineup before the end of the weekend.

Willingham had originally thought he would return after missing one game, but the virus hung on longer than he expected. It has robbed the Nationals of one of their best power hitters - Willingham is third on the team with nine homers - and forced the struggling Austin Kearns into the lineup all week.

But Willingham said he came to the ballpark Friday feeling stronger than he had all week.

“I’ll know how I feel when I take a few swings,” Willingham said. “It’ll probably be the same way. Hopefully [Saturday] I’ll be able to take BP on the field and do whatever.”

Kearns slumping

After hitting three homers and driving in 11 runs in his first 15 games, Kearns has slid into the same kind of funk that left him hitting .218 at the end of last season. He hasn’t homered in his past 28 games, 18 of which were starts. In that time, he’s hitting .197 with four RBI and 22 strikeouts.

Kearns and Acta credited much of his improvement to early spring work with new hitting coach Rick Eckstein. The two worked on separating Kearns’ hands from his body, getting him to extend his arms more through his swing while simultaneously shortening it. That technique puts his bat in prime hitting position more quickly while drawing more power from his arms.

Eckstein has started working with Kearns again on that issue, Acta said, because the right fielder has been slipping into some of his old habits.

“It’s very hard, but we had a talk with him the other day,” Acta said. “That’s why we’re not making such a drastic change with him.”

Said Kearns: “It’s something you try to fix as quick as possible, but it takes longer than you would like.”

Olsen’s health improving

Left-hander Scott Olsen, who has been sidelined with shoulder tendinitis since May 17, was at Nationals Park on Friday after finishing a rehab throwing program at the team’s extended spring training in Viera, Fla.

Olsen is building his strength back up, and Acta said the starter will head out on a rehab assignment soon.

“He’s already thrown two innings over there in Florida,” Acta said. “He’s here, he’s throwing on the side and his next outing is probably going to be at [Class A] Potomac. We’re putting a schedule together.”

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