By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007
SAN DIEGO, May 2 -- On a day when the Washington Nationals made a minor trade, a day when they failed to clinch their first series win of the season, a day when their rookie starter imploded, perhaps the most significant development included none of the above. Perhaps, even as the Nationals dropped a 7-3 decision to the San Diego Padres, the most important matter was that Nick Johnson, the injured first baseman, picked up a bat and swung it.
To be sure, Johnson's return is still far off; all he did was hit off a tee in the hours before the Nationals' second straight loss to the Padres at Petco Park. To the crowd of 22,153, what mattered was that the Padres got to rookie left-hander Matt Chico for five runs in the fourth, that the Nationals couldn't take advantage of an injury to San Diego starter Clay Hensley, scoring exactly their average for the year -- three runs, worst in the majors.
But long before all that, Johnson took a step toward perhaps reinvigorating the offense. The process of recovering from the broken right leg he suffered last September has been excruciatingly slow, so each milestone is greeted with relief and hope.
"I let it go pretty good. I wanted to see how this front side was," he said, slapping his leg. "It's sore. I feel it a little bit."
Manager Manny Acta stressed that, despite the latest development, the club has no timetable for Johnson's return. Johnson also is jumping rope, and he has been running sprints and doing a variety of strenuous agility drills. His progression now will be to continue to hit off a tee, then hit soft tosses, and eventually take batting practice.
"He looks a lot better," Acta said. "He's doing more tough kinds of exercises and going through it and not showing up the very next day as sore as before. It's encouraging."
But right now Johnson can't help the Nationals' offense. On Wednesday, a night after they were shut out, they were poised to jump on Hensley, even getting a run in the first inning for just the second time all season.
"We just continue to struggle with runners in scoring position," Acta said.
Hensley departed with a groin injury before the third inning. But combine the fact that he retired the last five men he faced with the fact that Padres relievers Doug Brocail, Heath Bell and Cla Meredith were perfect for the next four innings, and that would be 17 straight Nationals who went down without a peep.
Meantime, Chico, who grew up in the northern part of San Diego County, took what looked like a good start and let it unravel. Chico worked three scoreless innings, then retired the first man in the fourth. But from there, disaster. The keys: three walks in the inning, a rocket of an RBI triple from Khalil Greene, a just-fair bloop double from Geoff Blum and a two-run single from Marcus Giles that put the Padres up 5-1.
"The thing that killed me tonight was just my walks," Chico said. "That can't happen."
From there, the Nationals pulled to 5-3 on Robert Fick's two-run double, but that potential rally was halted when Fick thought center fielder Mike Cameron was going to catch the ball off Kory Casto's bat. Cameron didn't, and it fell for a double on which Fick couldn't score from second.
"A bad read," Fick said.
"A base-running blunder," Acta said.
Either way, the Nationals couldn't tie the game with runners on second and third because both Dmitri Young and Felipe Lopez failed to come through.
When it was over, Johnson, like the rest of his teammates, packed his bags for a trip to Chicago. There, his rehabilitation will continue. Whether the Nationals' offense will be resuscitated is another matter.