Bullpen session has Papelbon hopeful of midweek return from DL

MILWAUKEE - Jonathan Papelbon is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list on June 29, and with a little luck, the Nationals could have their closer back by the middle of next week.

Papelbon, who has been on the DL with a right intercostal strain since June 15, threw a 40-pitch bullpen session Saturday afternoon, the first time he’s thrown off a mound since being sidelined. Previously, he’d been limited to work on flat ground.

“The ball was flying everywhere, but I felt really good,” Papelbon said. “And that’s really the only thing that matters. Probably starting to feel better and better. I made some really good pitches and some really bad ones, which is how I expected of myself. But overall, I threw a lot of pitches and I felt really good.”

Papelbon said he felt no presence of the soreness in his right side that sent him to the DL for the first time in his career. Since his injury, the bullpen has been struggling for consistency as relievers’ roles have changed to compensate for his absence, and the Nationals have gone 3-6, losing their last six games, a season-worst skid.

“I really pushed myself. I pushed myself to see how far I could kind of take it,” he said. “I’m pretty exhausted now and I feel great, so that’s a good sign, if I can push myself for almost 40 pitches.”

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Now Papelbon must wait to see how the injured area reacts to a more strenuous workload, and if he feels no soreness tomorrow, he expects to discuss a minor league rehabilitation assignment with general manager Mike Rizzo.

Papelbon hopes to join the high Single-A Potomac Nationals on Monday when they open a three-game series against Winston-Salem at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va.

“My next stop will probably be at Potomac on Monday,” Papelbon said. “Talk to Rizz and confirm how I feel today. See how that day goes, and if that day goes good, hopefully be able to come off and help these guys out. But I don’t have a Magic 8-ball, so I can’t predict the future.”

Nats manager Dusty Baker thinks it’s no coincidence that the bullpen has been struggling and the team has been losing since his closer went on the shelf. And while he’s eager to see Papelbon return, he’s not getting ahead of himself.

“Pap said he felt great. He said his control wasn’t where it was, but that’s not what we were worried about,” Baker said. “That wasn’t the purpose of his session. The purpose of his session was to see how he felt in that area and he came in full of life. We’ll really have to wait until we see how he feels tomorrow.”

* When Baker’s Saturday lineup was posted, it contained a surprise: Wilson Ramos catching Gio Gonzalez instead of Jose Lobaton, who is usually the southpaw’s batterymate.

Baker’s explanation was a simple one. With Gonzalez struggling over his past six outings, Baker wanted to get as much offensive punch in the lineup for the lefty. That meant taking his usual backstop out of the order and replacing him with Ramos, who went 4-for-5 last night and is 11-for-29 on the road trip.

The manager said Lobaton will catch right-hander Stephen Strasburg in the series finale on Sunday, and that Clint Robinson would get a start at first base to spell Ryan Zimmerman.

* When teams are losing, there’s always talk of change. Reporters keep a close eye on who’s behind the manager’s closed door and who’s hot at Triple-A.

But Baker quickly diffused any discussion that the Nationals were looking to shake up the roster when asked before Saturday’s game.

“Can they get the big hit?” Baker asked. “That’s all we’re missing. We’re missing the big hit.”

Shortstop Trea Turner is hitting .290 with 26 extra-base hits, 30 RBIs and 22 stolen bases at Triple-A Syracuse, but Baker seems to value the defense Danny Espinosa provides over the spark Turner could offer. Espinosa is hitting only .222, but has seven homers in June.

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