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Johnson's New Stance

National Looks for Production Boost

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page D05

VIERA, Fla., March 15 -- The adjustments begin at about 8:15 a.m., before some of the Washington Nationals even arrive at Space Coast Stadium. Nick Johnson, dressed in a red, long-sleeved shirt with a "DC" logo on the collar, trudges out beyond the right field wall, where batting cages await. There, he begins a series of unnatural motions, all with the idea of making them, somehow, seem natural.

"It's not easy," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Nick Johnson
Nick Johnson
Coaches are working with Nick Johnson to tweak his batting stance and his swing. (Toni L. Sandy - Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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Johnson, the Nationals first baseman, is trying to make it look easy, even if it's not. Washington badly needs the former New York Yankee to produce if its lineup is to be more potent, and to do so, Nationals coaches are working on overhauling Johnson's batting stance and, thus, his swing. The process, all involved say, is a slow one.

Johnson, though, is trying to be as patient as possible. Sometimes, the results are there, as they were Monday, when he singled and doubled in two at-bats. Sometimes, they're not, as they weren't Tuesday, when he grounded out three times and hit into a fielder's choice.

Yet the routine is the same. Arrive early. Work hard on it. Try, somehow, to become accustomed to the changes.

"It feels all right," Johnson said Tuesday morning. "I'm just trying to get comfortable and work on some things. . . . But once the game starts, I have to just let it go."

Therein lies the trick. The Nationals believe Johnson must close up his stance and eliminate much of the movement in the lower half of his body. That will, in turn, allow him to get to inside pitches much more quickly, to fully use his hips and make him a more complete hitter.

But working on those things in the cage, with no opponent around and a ball being tossed from a few feet away, is one thing. Doing it in a game is another.

"You've got a lot more things to think about" in a game, Johnson said. "You've got a pitcher out there trying to get you off balance. So you've got to have a plan when you go up there."

The Nationals, though, want Johnson's plan to be transferred seamlessly from the batting cage to the batter's box all season. It is the only way, they believe, that his enormous potential can be realized.

"It's going to take a while," hitting coach Tom McCraw said, "because first of all, you've got three different changes to make. You've got the psychological change to make. You've got the physical change to make. And then you've got the mental change to make. . . . First you've got to get him mechanically to where you want him. Then you got to get him comfortable in that slot. Then you go to work on the head -- knowing what you want to do."

Johnson said he is committed to making the changes, and he dismisses them as something less than a complete overhaul. But Robinson said, "This is kind of a major type of thing," and Johnson is being watched closely by Nationals officials.

General Manager Jim Bowden said earlier this spring that he would like to acquire another capable bat to hit lower in the order. Johnson's spot is the one at stake, in large part because he hasn't been healthy enough to show what he can do over the course of an entire season. He has been on the disabled list at least once in each of the last five seasons.

Bowden, who hasn't made a trade since spring training began, said Tuesday that Johnson's approach is encouraging.

"He's working at it," Bowden said. "He's making adjustments. He's having a nice spring."

After going 0 for 4 in the 4-3 victory over the Indians, Johnson is officially 3 for 13 with two walks in spring training, though his two hits Monday don't appear in the stats because the game was washed out by rain in the middle of the third. The results, though, aren't as important as the process.

"You've got to retrain the muscles," McCraw said, "because right now, he'll start creeping out [to an open stance] . . . and I'll have to remind him to bring it back. That's where his muscles are used to going. They're comfortable there, so they go right back to that area. That's where having more time is going to be effective."

Johnson said he's willing to take that time.

"I think I'm already a lot quicker to the ball," he said. "We'll see."

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