Friday, April 14, 2006

MIAMI — When Ryan Church’s cell phone rang Thursday morning in New Orleans, it was Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson, just wanting to see how things were going.

Robinson never gave Church any indication he might be called up to the major leagues later that day, news that caught the 27-year-old outfielder by surprise once it finally was delivered. At the time, Church was just happy to hear from his manager.

“I meant a lot to me,” he said. “Frank called me on my cell phone. It really makes my outlook that much better that day.”

Church’s positive outlook remained yesterday when he rejoined the Nationals, 17 days after he was optioned to Class AAA. Though he hit only .130 with one homer and three RBI in seven games with the Zephyrs, Church believes he’s ready to return to the majors.

Robinson wasted no time inserting him back in the lineup. Despite the presence of Florida Marlins ace left-hander Dontrelle Willis on the mound last night, Church hit seventh and played center field, which previously was occupied by Brandon Watson, who was sent down to New Orleans after batting .179 in nine games.

Though Church’s early season numbers were far from spectacular, the Nationals felt he was the best option to replace the struggling Watson.

“What we said when we sent him down was, ‘Go down, get yourself going.’ Did he do that? No,” Robinson said. “We just feel like he has proven he can hit up here before. … We said we’ll give him the first shot. Maybe he’ll get going up here.”

Church said it took a few days for the initial shock of his demotion to set in. Once it did, he understood the club’s rationale and set out to earn his way back to the big leagues.

“I finally came to grips with it and let it be,” he said. “They kept their word. Just go down there and get back into things and you’ll be back up here.”

Guillen scratched

Right fielder Jose Guillen was scratched from last night’s starting lineup shortly before the game after straining a left oblique muscle during batting practice.

Guillen was examined by team physician Bruce Thomas. He is day-to-day.

Marlon Byrd replaced Guillen in right field and hit third, a bit of a surprise because Byrd was still feeling the effects of Thursday’s collision with Mets first baseman Chris Woodward.

Byrd suffered a neck “stinger” when he bowled into Woodward trying to beat out a grounder at RFK Stadium.

That’s the kind of injury one might normally sustain in a football game, not baseball, but it wasn’t anything new to Byrd. He was an all-state football player in high school in Georgia, not that it showed during his collision with the slight Woodward.

“I said I was considering using him as my fullback,” Robinson said. “And then you let a little defensive back that’s 170 pounds knock you on your back. Forget it.”

Harris back

Infielder Brendan Harris joined Church on the early morning trip from New Orleans to South Florida. He’s the other position player called up by the Nationals following Thursday’s embarrassing loss to the Mets.

Like Church, Harris wasn’t hitting the cover off the ball at Class AAA — he was 6-for-26 with a homer and four RBI. But he gives Robinson more flexibility when it comes to defensive changes in the infield, something the manager hasn’t had with Damian Jackson as his only reserve infielder.

Harris made five starts at shortstop in his one week in the minors, and Robinson said he’d be willing to play him there on occasion, even though most of his experience is at third and second base.

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