Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson criticized Toronto Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun for a play at the plate yesterday that resulted in first baseman Nick Johnson injuring his right heel.

Johnson, who landed awkwardly on the heel when crossing the plate in the seventh inning, was taken to the Washington Hospital Center for X-rays and an MRI exam.

"What he tried to do is avoid Zaun's leg," Robinson said. "He jumped over his leg. And this is why catchers get knocked on their butts, just that very reason. He blocked the plate when he didn't have a chance for a play at the plate. That's why you should never as a runner avoid knocking them on their butt, because there is a good possibility you're going to get hurt."

Zaun said he got his leg out of the way when he saw the throw wasn't going to beat Johnson, adding, "Apparently, there was not anyone behind home telling him to slide."

"He [Robinson] gestured at me, but I didn't take it personally," Zaun said. "From his viewpoint, it may have looked like a dirty play, but he should know better than that. I'm not a dirty player."

Church Is Close to Return

Robinson and outfielder Ryan Church have set an optimistic target date of tomorrow for the rookie to return to action.

Church, who bruised his left shoulder colliding into the outfield wall in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, said yesterday that he felt a lot better, even as he missed his third consecutive game. . . .

Robinson said the Nationals are more talented than the 1989 Baltimore Orioles team he managed, which improved 321/2 games from 1988 and finished second in the American League East.

"There is more proven talent on this team," said Robinson, adding that the teams are similar in their commitment to fundamentals.

Nationals ace Livan Hernandez knows a lot about what it takes to make the postseason, having played a key role in the Florida Marlins' 1997 championship run.

"It's too early," Hernandez said. "June -- nobody goes to the playoffs in June."