Nats Ponder Why They've Been Bitten by Injury Bug

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Give Manny Acta a mannequin, he has joked -- though more with head shaking than laughing -- and he can identify for each part of the body an injury that has hit his team this season. The Nationals' maladies have covered the entire human form.

Just accounting for injuries below the belt, Alberto González strained his left hamstring, Lastings Milledge strained his right groin and Elijah Dukes tore tendons in his right knee. He recovered from that, and two games later he strained his calf, the same body part that already had sent Aaron Boone and Ronnie Belliard to the disabled list.

And above the belt? The mannequin's arms alone could list much of the roster. Ryan Zimmerman missed eight weeks with a left shoulder injury, Wily Mo Peña lost his season to left rotator cuff surgery and Shawn Hill has lost much of his season to forearm trouble. The hand? That sent then-National Paul Lo Duca to the DL. The thumb? It's kept Cristian Guzmán out of the lineup at times of late. The right shoulder? It cost Chad Cordero his season.

At this point, there's little purpose left in contemplating the net effect of those injuries on Washington's season; any team that sends eight of its nine Opening Day starters to the disabled list, or starts six different players at first base, probably sentences itself to a painful season.

But now, as Washington's fortune with health has stabilized -- it begins today's series against the Los Angeles Dodgers with only seven men on the DL, a list five players shorter than the Mets, four players shorter than the Dodgers -- Washington's team management, as well as its team doctor, has turned to a different question: Why did so many injuries occur this season? Was it all an anomaly, dismissible as bad luck? Or can the team identify a link connecting the injuries, one that might point toward improvements for next season?

"I think bad luck is probably the right word," team physician Ben Shaffer said. "You know, honestly, that's probably what I would attribute it to. The injuries don't have much in common. Ryan Zimmerman, he was sliding. Nick Johnson, it was swinging a bat. Austin Kearns, he had loose bodies in his elbow. None of those are conditioning things. None of those have to do with training.

"If there was something we could identify from a conditioning standpoint, we would address that. But you look at it, there is no overlapping, root cause. I can't think of things in particular I would advocate doing differently."

Many of Washington's injuries have begun with a day-to-day prognosis and only later shown greater severity. When he felt a searing pain in his right shoulder on Opening Day, Cordero was first ruled day-to-day, then sent to the disabled list with tendinitis, and later sent to the DL again with a torn lat. Only in July did the latest in a series of imaging tests reveal a torn labrum, which immediately ended his season.

According to team trainer Lee Kuntz, injuries manifest themselves in unpredictable ways. Zimmerman first tweaked his shoulder on May 18 against Baltimore. He tried playing for the next week and spent a week after that hoping day-to-day rest would cure him. Only on June 3 did he head to the DL.

"[The training staff] knew right away that I was hurt," Zimmerman said. "But everybody hurts in baseball. Nobody feels good. So step one is you determining whether you're healthy -- whether it doesn't hurt enough to say anything. Everybody appreciates someone who goes out and plays if you're injured, but can you be the same player, or are you hurting the team?"

Playing hurt has at times hindered Washington. Kearns tried to play through the beginning part of the season with elbow pain, and it weakened his swing. Peña tried to survive much of the season with shoulder pain, and it rendered him ineffective.

"I've got to rely on what they're telling me," Kuntz said. "I can't get in their heads. Because different guys -- one guy may tell you 'I'm fine,' and then another might tell you that, 'Hey, I'm dead.' You know, you've got to know the player and see it for what it's worth. You've got to observe him, too, when he's on the field. A lot of it is observation."

Those involved with Washington's operations have no complaints about the team's medical facilities or resources. The Nationals have two team trainers, the standard number (though some teams have three). By moving into a new ballpark, the Nationals' ability to combat injuries has actually benefited. Nationals Park has an underwater treadmill, hot and cold therapy pools, a rehab room, a weight room, an area for a massage therapist, and an X-ray facility.

The underwater treadmill, Kuntz quipped, is almost worn out from overuse.

"We have been bitten hard," Kuntz said. "But I think it may have affected us more just because of who it bit. It's the front-line guys here who have gotten hurt. That's all.

"As far as changes for next year, I'd always like to add staff, yeah, because like you say, it would become a little more efficient. But as far as determining injuries, no, it's cyclical. This runs throughout the league. You just, you've got to play the hand you're dealt. And that's all."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company