- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2011

As Nationals Park baked under the afternoon sun Tuesday, Ryan Zimmerman took another step toward his return to the field.

Several steps, actually.

On the disabled list since April 12 with a strained left abdominal, Zimmerman went through a brief workout before Washington’s 6-4 loss to the New York Mets, the Nationals’ second striaight and fifth in seven games.

The third baseman played catch from 60 feet. He ran at half his normal speed. Nothing extraordinary happened. And that may be the best news of all for Zimmerman.

“He knows he’s got to make sure he’s right,” said Jerry Hairston Jr., who has started nine of the 14 games Zimmerman has missed. “Like any competitor, he’s itching to get back there. But I think he realizes it’s an area where you don’t want to mess around. You’ve got to make sure you’re 100 percent. You don’t want to have setbacks.”

There isn’t a timetable for Zimmerman’s return or plans for a rehabilitation assignment in the minor leagues. The priority is resuming normal baseball activities without aggravating the injury.

“I think he’ll find his timing at the plate pretty quick,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “But it’s the other parts of the game the running, taking an extra base, sliding, quick movements where we want to make sure we don’t re-aggravate the injury.”

Zimmerman wasn’t available for comment.

Without him, the Nationals’ offense has plunged to the second-worst batting average in baseball and third-worst slugging percentage.

The three players who’ve replaced Zimmerman - Hairston, Alex Cora and Brian Bixler - are a combined 10-for-70 with five RBI and two extra-base hits. That doesn’t come close to matching Zimmerman’s production, of course. In eight games, he had 15 total bases and a .486 on-base percentage.

Any temptation to rush him back is dwarfed by fears of turning the injury into a long-term problem.

“We want to keep the days as short as possible on this,” Riggleman said.

Hairston knows better than most the problems that accompany abdominal strains. His brother, Scott, dealt with the same injury with the San Diego Padres in 2008.

“It’s not something where you come back quick. It’s six weeks or two months,” Hairston said.

The problem is baseball players use the abdominal area for, well, everything.

“It’s a bad place to happen,” Hairston said. “Everything you do you build out of your core, whether it’s defense, throwing, hitting. The main thing is when he comes back, we want to make sure he’s 100 percent so he can be 100 percent the whole year and not have a setback.”

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