First baseman Nick Johnson will begin a rehabilitation assignment today at Class AAA New Orleans, signaling the final step in his recovery from a deep bone bruise in his right heel. Johnson, who suffered the injury June 26, hopes to be back with the Washington Nationals as soon as Tuesday.

"It's good to get back going again," Johnson said. "I'll go get some at-bats and see how it goes. I feel like I'm swinging the bat well. I want to get back and play with these guys. I want to help. That's the next step."

Johnson hit in the batting cage yesterday afternoon, then walked into the outfield with head trainer Tim Abraham to stretch and run. Abraham set a baseball glove in the outfield, and Johnson practiced rounding it like a base.

A similar drill left Johnson wincing Thursday, but he said yesterday's workout caused no pain.

"The running feels better," said Johnson, who was hitting .320 before his injury. "We changed some things to take some stress off the heel. I basically don't feel any pain. It's going to be a little sore. It's always there, but it doesn't hurt much."

That's good news for the Nationals, whose offensive slide has coincided with Johnson's absence. In 10 games entering Friday, Washington had scored more than four runs only one time. It has shuffled its lineup almost daily without Johnson, who had become a reliable cleanup hitter.

If Johnson returns Tuesday, that could become a landmark day for ailing Washington hitters. Vinny Castilla, who has been out since July 19 with tendinitis in his left knee, said yesterday he will certainly return by Tuesday, if not sooner.

"Our problems aren't all because guys are out, but that's some of it," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We sure could use [Johnson's] bat."

Guillen Treated for Shoulder Pain

Right fielder Jose Guillen had an anti-inflammatory shot to subdue pain in his left shoulder Thursday night, but he still felt good enough to be in the lineup yesterday. Guillen took batting practice about three hours before the game to test his shoulder.

"It felt good. That's why I'm going to play," Guillen said. "I just feel much better today. It's pain free."