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Strength Coach Sets New Tone for Nats

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., March 7 -- During the last two decades, John Philbin has trained boxers. He has worked with the Washington Redskins. He has coached the U.S. Olympic bobsled team. It's all there, listed on his résumé, the one he submitted to the Washington Nationals last winter when the team began its search for a new strength and conditioning coach.

But Philbin's 29 years of fitness experience at the time were just as notable for what they didn't include. He had minimal experience with baseball. Sure, he had trained a few baseball players at the Gaithersburg fitness center he's operated since 1993, but they were local guys. High school players. Maybe a few collegians.

"They obviously took a chance by hiring outside their comfort zone," Philbin said. "Which is unusual for baseball."

As it turned out, Philbin's distance from the sport aligned with Washington's desire to upset the status quo. In 2008, the Nationals lost 1,317 player-days to injury. Almost every critical member of its lineup spent time on the disabled list.

The injuries became so pervasive that some in the organization refused to accept it as coincidence, and after the season the team dismissed its strength coach, Kazuhiko Tomooka.

When Philbin interviewed with then-general manager Jim Bowden, the deficiencies with the old program "were a big topic," Philbin said. "They said, 'We need to fix this.' "

"What did I like about him?" asked trainer Lee Kuntz. "To be truthful? His lack of knowledge about baseball. Tabula rasa. He comes in here with a clean slate. Baseball is so tradition-bound. We're bringing in new ideas."

Philbin subscribes to a philosophy known as high-intensity training, fitness based on minimal reps and maximum exertion. He wants workouts to last 25 minutes or so. Quick, efficient. "And when you're playing every day," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, "you can't be working out for an hour."

Starting in the early 1980s, when Philbin was an intern with the Redskins, he learned the high-intensity method from one of its pioneers, Redskins strength coach Dan Riley. Since then, Philbin has written a book called "High Intensity Training." And this winter, when Philbin flew across the country to meet with several of his new players (including Lastings Milledge and Dmitri Young) one-on-one, observing their workouts and suggesting improvements, he gave them copies of the book.

Last year, Philbin said, Washington's players commonly did three or four sets of any given exercise. Now, they do only one. But swapping time for intensity also puts a heightened emphasis on form.

"We're big believers in that," Philbin said. "Which is a little different, again, if they had somebody before critiquing that. Obviously they didn't have that before, because most of them were doing it, in our eyes, wrong."

There is, of course, no guarantee that Philbin's methods will correlate with any decline in injuries. But Philbin wants to improve other elements, too. At his recommendation, the team hired a nutritionist. He sometimes begins workouts with an all-hands-in huddle, unusual for baseball. Last year, the team relied on just Tomooka; this spring, though, the team has used trainers from Philbin's Gaithersburg gym -- they come to Florida in two-week shifts, two at a time -- to give the enlarged roster extra assistance.

If nothing else, Philbin's history makes him confident that he can enter as an outsider and quickly make an impression. In 1982, after some work with the Redskins and the University of Maryland, Philbin got a call from Lake Placid, N.Y.

Did he want to become the head trainer for the U.S. Olympic program?

Philbin said yes, and soon he was training hockey players, skiers, even figure skaters. Just one thing interfered with the new job. The U.S. bobsled coach, after watching Philbin train his athletes, realized the trainer had more competence than the participants. That's how Philbin received the offer to become a bobsledder, and soon, Philbin said, "I was on USA 1 sliding around Europe and heading toward the '84 Olympics." (In his Olympic race, Philbin's bobsled wrecked, and he broke his back and left elbow.)

In the years that followed, Philbin coached the bobsled team, spent seven more years with the Redskins, and even started his own gym. With this latest job, though, Philbin and the Nationals are still learning what to expect -- which has led to all sorts of new sensations, including soreness. Earlier this spring, Philbin suggested that Adam Dunn try some forearm exercises by gripping, and flexing, a heavy industrial-size pipe.

One hour later, Dunn spotted Philbin.

"Coach, I still can't feel my forearms," Dunn deadpanned. "Should I go, like, ice them?"

Nationals Notes: Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Peña and Dmitri Young are dealing with minor injuries that are delaying -- if not hurting -- their bids to make the team.

Again on Saturday, in a 7-5 win against the Mets in Port St. Lucie, Kearns, Peña and Young were unable to play. Kearns has missed the last few days with a blister on his left palm. Peña has a strained right shoulder. Young has a tight back.

Of the three, Kearns is the likeliest to return first. He took a few swings on Saturday, and the Nats hope to have him on the field Sunday. Peña is plotting a return by mid-week.

As for Young, Manager Manny Acta is still promising nothing. "Dmitri still has some back tightness, so he's not able to do anything on the field," Acta said. . . .

Starter Scott Olsen gave up six hits and two earned runs in three innings Saturday. Joel Guzmán hit his first home run of the spring in the seventh inning and finished the day 2 for 5. . . .

Third baseman José Castillo, a non-roster invitee, strained his left shoulder in the seventh inning while trying to field a hard-hit grounder. He will be reevaluated on Sunday. "It's gonna be a couple days before he can swing a bat," Acta said. "He really jammed his shoulder when he hit the ground, but it's not dislocated."

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