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3/3/2013 5:58 P.M. ET

Zimmerman returns to formidable Nats lineup

Has RBI single as designated hitter against Cardinals in first spring action

VIERA, Fla. -- Bit by bit this spring, the Nationals have looked more and more like themselves.

Davey Johnson has been slow to slot his regulars and his veterans into the starting lineup, but no starting nine more closely resembled the team's probable Opening Day lineup than the one Johnson put forth on Sunday.

And much of that regularity returned in the form of the name scribbled onto the fourth line: Ryan Zimmerman.

After enduring a period of pain, followed by a longer stretch of unfamiliarity and discomfort last season -- then offseason shoulder surgery -- the Nationals' franchise third baseman returned to action against the Cardinals at Space Coast Stadium.

He did not play third. He'll likely be in the lineup only as a designated hitter every other day, alternating with rehabbing catcher Wilson Ramos, for a few more weeks until Zimmerman builds up throwing strength. He went 1-for-3 with a bloop RBI single, struck out and grounded into a 4-6-3 double play in a 7-6 victory over the Cards.

"He just needs the at-bats," Johnson said. "The timing is always the thing in the spring. Typically you want to get enough at-bats so your timing is where you want it for Opening Day. I'm not concerned about him getting on the field at all."

Zimmerman was feeling pain in his shoulder as early as last April. His performance at the plate -- he had a .224/.324/.345 slash line in March and April, with one homer and seven RBIs -- was affected, and his throwing motion at third base, at times already unconventional, was uncomfortable.

He received a cortisone shot at the end of June and was one of baseball's hottest hitters in July and August, determined not to miss the chance to help lead the Nationals to the playoffs after spending the previous seven seasons with the club at the bottom of the division.

"Before the shot, it was the hitting," Zimmerman said. "I had no power, no nothing. The shot finally did that. The frustrating part was, I couldn't feel pain. I couldn't function like I wanted to. My brain was telling me to do something, but obviously I couldn't do it physically. That was the most frustrating part, because nothing hurt."

On Oct. 25, he had arthroscopic surgery to repair his acromioclavicular joint, and began therapy two days later. He arrived at camp with weeks of rehab behind him, feeling "a lot freer," he said. That began the Spring Training process, which consisted of a throwing program that will eventually get him back to the point where he can comfortably play the position for which he has been named an All-Star and a Gold Glover.

"The team we had last year, and the way that we were playing, there was no way that I wasn't going to play," Zimmerman said. "Obviously, sometimes it didn't look so good. It was probably the first time I ever felt uncomfortable on a baseball field at any time."

The Nationals will rest on their off-day Monday, before returning to Space Coast Stadium to take on the Astros on Tuesday. Zimmerman is expected to be back in the lineup, and should play every other day moving forward, until he's ready to man his spot at third base on a regular basis.

Until then, it will be the Nationals slowly looking more and more like themselves.

"I'd rather take that real slow," Johnson said of getting his third baseman reps. "As long as he's getting his at-bats, I'm not gonna be concerned."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak.‬ This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.