On May 2, Nationals left fielder Terrmel Sledge tore his hamstring at Dodger Stadium and was lost for the season. Washington was forced to put a struggling rookie in its lineup. Ryan Church was hitting .184 and looked lost at the plate.

"Seize the opportunity," General Manager Jim Bowden told Church. "Never look back."

Then, Bowden went straight to the phones and started trying to trade for a left fielder. It's all very well to give advice to rookies, but the GM figured he'd sleep better with Juan Encarnacion in his outfield. On May 31, Bowden actually thought he'd gotten the Marlins outfielder for pitcher Zach Day. Within a few hours, Day's injury was diagnosed as a fractured wrist. No deal. Lucky Bowden. Lucky Church. Lucky Nationals. Since the day Church replaced Sledge, the smooth, graceful 6-foot-1, 190-pound rookie has hit .388 and slugged .649 for a period of almost two months as he's platooned with Marlon Byrd.

"I knew I was hitting well, but not that well," he said yesterday. Church's progression has been so steady, yet quietly spectacular, that he's now the front-runner for National League rookie of the year. Church has the team's highest batting average (.325) and slugging average (.544) and has driven in more runs per at-bat than any Nat. Perhaps more impressive, his power -- often a measure of a rookie's confidence at the plate -- has dramatically improved every month as his slugging marks for April, May and June have risen from .333 to .508 to .737.

"That's the kind of improvement, week to week and month to month, that I want to see," Church said. "Maybe none of this would have happened if Sledge hadn't gotten hurt."

Or, for that matter, if Encarnacion had been acquired and given the job. Then, the Nats would have gotten a proven, but far from special, commodity. Now instead, as hitting coach Tom McCraw says, "We have a player in Church with a lot of upside. We were looking for one more bat in this lineup and he could be that difference. Now, he has to want to be one of the best. The ball is in his court."

On Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Church certainly looked like he wanted to be one of the best -- and win the respect from his hard-nosed veteran teammates, too. With two outs in the ninth and a one-run lead, Church slammed almost full speed into the wall, making a catch to end the game. Then, he crumpled to the warning track, flat on his back but holding the ball in the air. Some teammates ran to help him while all the rest formed a line in the infield. Nobody shook hands until Church, dazed and with his shirt-tail out, joined them for congratulations.

True to the clubhouse tone, center fielder Brad Wilkerson needled Church yesterday. "If he'd been playing 'no doubles,' he wouldn't have had to run into the wall," said Wilkerson, meaning that in such a situation Church should have been playing deeper to cut off any doubles that would put the potential tying run in scoring position.

Still, Church moved up a level in stature with a team that has a run-into-the-wall mentality. Earlier this season, Church missed time, including an Opening Day start, with the kind of in-between injuries that some play with, but others can't.

"I've never hit a wall that hard. It's padded, but it didn't feel like it. I didn't want to move. I just wanted to lie there," Church said after being X-rayed and examined by doctors yesterday. The result: He's nicely bruised, but nothing is broken. "I was a little lightheaded, maybe a little bit of shock. I've never had a broken bone, but it felt like something was broken. I'd do it again. But not next week."

Why not?

"We're playing in Wrigley Field. The wall is brick."

After the game, Church's crunched chest would barely allow him to speak clearly. "Made the catch. Got the 'W.' Let's get out of here," he said in the kind of memorable quote that few rookies make, but seems natural to Church, who has to restrain himself from being a little too colorful for a rookie on an old-school team. If he eventually proves to be as good as he's shown this season, he'll be able to turn up a lot of star wattage in a hurry.

On Thursday's off day, Church told Nats trainers, "I can't move anything. I'm not getting up." Yesterday, Manager Frank Robinson had Church's name on the lineup card, even though Church was still being X-rayed. That carried a message.

Church has showed there's a strong probability he can hit, hit with power, run the bases aggressively, throw well and field spectacularly at times, too. He has all the tools, although he did get hit in the face by a fly ball in Anaheim, an embarrassment even by rookie standards.

Right now, besides maintaining his form at the plate, Church has only one thing left to prove. And it's a touchy point, especially for a young player. He has the courage to make a play like the wall bash in Pittsburgh. But yesterday, with his name on the lineup card, he didn't play because his chest was still bruised from the collision. "No chance. I can't lift my arm above my shoulder."

Nats vets will be watching. Baseball is a tough game, not in terms of NFL-like violence but in its demand for month after month of grinding performance in the face of countless nagging injuries. Injuries that the normal citizen would certainly never consider minor. All rookies must prove their stripes in terms of play-hurt doggedness, not just heroic one-play grit.

"I'd rather have the respect of Frank and my teammates and take the pain," catcher Brian Schneider said. "But everybody has different tolerances and nobody knows what anybody else is feeling. If I'm not hurting the team, I want to play."

The code is not whether you hurt but whether you hurt the team.

Perhaps the other team model is Wilkerson, who rarely misses a game despite many bumps and strains, not to mention that he's both batted and played out of position all season -- hitting leadoff and playing center -- because it helps the team. On many clubs, Church would not be held to such high standards. But the Nationals, so far, are different and expect more of each other.

"Very few guys go through a season without some dings. You have to go out there and pile up your numbers. You can't get them if you're not on the field. Go to the well every day. That's what I need for Ryan to understand," McCraw said. "Cal Ripken would limp into the whirlpool and play the next day. I've told [Church] that major league baseball is like a chance to hit the lottery a half-dozen times in your career [with each new contract]. It's there for you. But you have to play every day.

"Kirk Gibson hit a home run in the World Series when he could barely get around the bases. Frank played for a month with blurred vision," McCraw said. "Brad Wilkerson was supposed to be out of the lineup [recently]. He told Frank, 'No, I'm in there.' That's what you're looking for. He's a throwback. You want to get 550 at-bats, not 450. Max out your career."

Church certainly wants to be that player. "I want to stay here," he said. "This is a special time, a special moment, a special team."

On that team full of throwbacks, this smooth rookie with so many tools has a place waiting for him. And not a platoon job, either. But, at times like this, when he's hurting, but not actually hurt, he's probably going to have to say, "I'm in there." That is, if he intends to be a full-fledged member of the lodge.