By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; D05
The Washington Nationals placed Iván Rodríguez on the 15-day disabled list Monday, meaning their veteran catcher will miss the entirety of the 10-game trip that starts Tuesday -- and will not be behind the plate on June 4, the likely first start for phenom Stephen Strasburg.
While their future Hall of Famer heals his lower back strain, Wil Nieves will toggle from steady backup to the Nationals' primary catcher. Replacing Rodríguez, 38, will be a difficult proposition for the Nationals, particularly on offense.
Rodríguez has hit .325 this year, first among National League catchers who have played at least 25 games, with a .351 on-base percentage, 9 doubles and 16 RBI. Nieves, a career .233 hitter, is 13 for 58 this season with no walks, three doubles and a homer.
Rodríguez, potentially an all-star, has spent no time on the disabled list since June 2002, a testament to his obsessive fitness regimen. Rodríguez works out every morning at 9:30 Monday through Friday. He has kept the same routine, done with the same personal trainer, for the past 15 years.
"I'm always keeping myself in good shape," Rodríguez said last week. "That's the most important thing about playing this game. You start making your lower back and your legs strong, you're going to be able to make it all the way into October."
Yet, lower back pain has besieged him all season. He experienced discomfort in the first week of the season, a symptom from a strange hotel bed. Rodríguez felt an occasional spasm, but the Nationals assumed Rodríguez had moved beyond his back pain.
On Saturday, though, Rodríguez swung and missed and bent over in the batter's box, grimacing. A trainer visited him. He finished the at-bat and slammed his helmet to the ground. Rodríguez did not come back into the game to play defense, then sat out Sunday.
The Nationals will call up minor league veteran Carlos Maldonado to serve as Nieves's backup. The Nationals signed Maldonado early in the season for insurance, which they needed given the maladies their catchers have endured. Chris Coste, a late-spring signing, is out for the season because of Tommy John surgery.
Jesús Flores, who could have been projected as the Nationals' starter, is on the 60-day disabled list and not close to returning to the major leagues. Jamie Burke tore his meniscus during the spring and reported to Class AAA Syracuse for the first time this season Monday.
Maldonado, 31, has appeared in 21 major league games -- and 1,085 minor league games -- since the Seattle Mariners signed him out of Venezuela in 1995. His only major league action came during September call-ups in 2006 and 2007 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He's hitting .218 with one home run for Syracuse this season.
Maldonado enjoyed a recent brush with celebrity at Syracuse, catching Strasburg's first two Class AAA starts. While Rodríguez will not return in time to catch June 4, the expected date of Strasburg's debut, Strasburg has a rapport in place with Nieves.
Nieves caught Strasburg's first two starts in spring training. Moments before Strasburg made his anticipated debut, Nieves walked with him to the mound and asked Strasburg, "You see all these people who came to see me?" Strasburg laughed and relaxed.
"He's real easy to work with," Strasburg said March 14, after his second spring training start. "He really pumps you up. He works real hard back there. It's real easy, because he doesn't fight you. He works with you. You make a bad pitch, and he's going to be right there with you. He's like, 'Let's go. This one.' It's great to have that behind the plate."