The most encouraging sign for the Washington Nationals this week at Pittsburgh's PNC Park could have been Jose Guillen's four home runs or Chad Cordero's 22nd and 23rd saves or John Patterson's ability to bounce back from a shaky start and grow sturdier when there was an opportunity to wilt.
Those were the essential elements in the Nationals' ability to take two of three games from the Pirates. But the most encouraging sign, long-term, came in the hours before those games, in the afternoon sun, when Jose Vidro -- dressed in a red Nationals shirt and gray baseball pants -- enjoyed the simple things in life. He played catch. He ran on the outfield grass. He took swings in batting practice, sending balls over the fences, a reminder that as well as the first-place Nationals have played to this point, their lineup is about to get significantly better.
"He changes the complexion of our offense, having that bat in there," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "It gets the guys around him better pitches to hit. It gives us another RBI threat, another guy to put the ball in play.
"This is a special bat. I don't think people realize how good he is."
Since Vidro slid into home plate and twisted his left ankle against the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 4, it has been easy to forget how good he is. The injury was originally diagnosed as a high ankle sprain, but doctors later discovered a partially torn tendon. Vidro, the Nationals' quiet leader and No. 3 hitter, hasn't played since.
Now, though, a return appears imminent. Vidro's plan is to continue to work through this weekend, when the Nationals host the Toronto Blue Jays, and perhaps be ready for a rehabilitation assignment early next week. If all goes well, he could be back in the lineup for next weekend's series in Chicago against the Cubs, or perhaps just after that, when the Nationals return home to play the New York Mets.
"I don't feel any pain," Vidro said. "I've been running a little out there, and I've been getting tired quick, but it's not pain, so that's good. I just need to get in shape."
Nationals officials don't believe Vidro will need much time to get his bat in shape. His first batting practice session, Tuesday afternoon at PNC Park, was watched by Bowden, Manager Frank Robinson and hitting coach Tom McCraw. Vidro, a switch hitter, swung comfortably from both sides of the plate, spraying line drives all over the field, and reported no pain afterward.
It was a reminder of what Vidro can do. At the time of the injury, he was hitting .290 with four homers and 15 RBI, slugging .510, in 28 games. In parts of nine seasons, he is a .304 hitter with 105 homers and 486 RBI, a three-time all-star. Bowden, who discusses potential trades every day, has been adamant that the Nationals need one more productive bat to feel more comfortable about competing for the title in the National League East, the division they now lead. But could Vidro's insertion in the lineup be as good as a trade?
"It'll be better," Robinson said, "because you don't get Jose Vidro in a trade without tearing up your team."
Tim Abraham, the Nationals' head trainer, has worked with Vidro since Vidro had a protective boot removed from his ankle two weeks ago. Abraham said as Vidro improves, he will add more workload to the rehabilitation, having him run the bases and take more groundballs, the truest test of whether he's ready to return.
"We have to get him doing things he does on the baseball field," Abraham said. "We have to make sure he's completely ready before he comes back."
Vidro understands that, though there is clearly a battle raging inside his head. He hates to miss even one game, so missing seven weeks is excruciating.
"I just got to work to get my leg strength back," Vidro said. "I've got to get my confidence back."
Confidence in his ankle, not in his swing.
"Vidro's an outstanding hitter," Robinson said, "and you don't lose that overnight."
Vidro will return to a lineup that is significantly different than the one he left. In his 28 starts, Vidro hit third 27 times. Now, Jose Guillen -- who is swinging the bat as well as he has all year -- appears entrenched in the third spot, and Nick Johnson is having an all-star-caliber season batting cleanup. So Vidro, a versatile clutch hitter, will likely hit second, a position in which seven Nationals have played -- including four on the just-completed nine-game road trip.
"That's exactly where he'd probably slide into," Robinson said.
When Vidro left the lineup, the Nationals were two games above .500, barely in third place in the NL East. Now, they are a season-high 12 games over .500, sitting in first. In discussing Vidro's return, Bowden went to him earlier this week with a clear message.
"We plan on playing in October," Bowden told Vidro. "Let's make sure we're ready so we can play in October. We don't want to come back too early, have an injury, a setback, and now you're not with us in October."
So they are trying to be cautious. But the reality is this: They have made a run to first place with their best player on the bench.
"My concern right now is to get healthy," Vidro said. "All those things are going to be up to us -- definitely up to us. We definitely have the team to do it, but we cannot be thinking ahead of ourselves."