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Johnson Trying to Get Back to First

He Has What Nationals Need -- If He's Healthy

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page D08

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 23 -- Go around the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, from locker to locker, and look for those players who have appeared in a World Series. It won't take long. Stop at No. 61, home to Livan Hernandez, hero of the 1997 Series for the Florida Marlins. Move to No. 77, where Carlos Baerga, the starting second baseman for the 1995 American League champion Cleveland Indians, is just settling in after signing a minor-league deal with the Nationals.

And then come to No. 24, Nick Johnson. You remember, right? In 2003, Johnson held one of the most glamorous positions in all of sports: First baseman, New York Yankees. He played in all six games of the World Series. Yes, the Yankees lost to Florida. But Johnson heard the crowd, felt the lights, absorbed the pressure.

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"I think about it," Johnson said. "It was a great experience. But it doesn't mean much right now."

As spring training trudges on, that's the attitude Johnson must take. He is no longer in that Broadway glare, no longer secure in his job, no longer likely to appear in the postseason. Traded to the Montreal Expos following the 2003 season as part of a deal for pitcher Javier Vazquez, he went from playing for the team known around the world to the team that's barely known around the block. And now, he is in the midst of a spring that could determine whether he gets back to the kind of stage for which he once seemed destined.

"Nick Johnson has always had potential," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "He hasn't done it for a full season. He's got to explode if we're going to win."

The explosion, in some senses, was supposed to happen long ago -- and in New York. In 1998, he was the Yankees' minor league player of the year. In 1999, he hit .345 and drove in 87 runs in Class AA ball. It was Johnson, not Jason Giambi, who was to take the place of Tino Martinez at first base for the Yankees.

But the series of mishaps and misfortune that has followed has turned him from a potential superstar to a potential afterthought -- and not by his own doing. In spring training of 2000, Johnson checked his swing during a split-squad game against Cincinnati. He strained a muscle in his right hand. Just a nagging injury, it would seem. But no. Before long, that little strained muscle cost him an entire season.

It is the tale of Johnson's career. Step forward, step back. Step forward, step back. He played a career-high 129 games for the 2002 Yankees, then missed 61 games the following year with a stress fracture in his right hand. He figured to contribute to another pennant run in 2004, but was traded before he had the chance.

"At first, it was a little disappointing, because the Yankees were the team I was drafted by," Johnson said. "That's the first time anything like that had ever happened to me."

Last season, he was the easy preseason choice to be the Expos' everyday first baseman. Naturally, though, he strained his back in spring training. Shelved, again. He returned in May. In August, he won National League player of the week honors during one stretch of 18 at-bats in which he had eight hits, including two homers and two doubles, and drove in 10 runs.

But of course, for good measure, something freakish had to happen. Five days after winning that award, he moved toward the line in an attempt to snare a one-hop smash off the bat of Colorado's Royce Clayton. A superior fielder, Johnson figured to make the play -- until the ball bounced to the side, directly into his face. Another trip to the disabled list. Another premature end to the season.

So it's no wonder Johnson sits quietly in front of his locker these days, politely beginning the answers to almost all questions with "As long as I stay healthy . . ." He's not alone in assessing himself that way.

"If he stays healthy, I'm telling you, he can win a batting title," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said earlier this spring. "That's how good a hitter he is. He was like Giambi when Giambi was younger -- very selective, very patient at the plate, using the whole field, making the pitcher work. He's a lot like that."

But the time for comments on Johnson's potential, some Nationals officials feel, is over. To stay in this lineup, he must produce, for a surplus of outfielders could easily push budding star Brad Wilkerson to first base. And even if Wilkerson remains in left field, the best hitting prospect in the system is another left-handed hitting first baseman, Larry Broadway.

"When I leave camp, I want the whole staff and the front office to say, 'There's not a doubt this kid's ready,' " Broadway said Wednesday. "That way, if there's an injury or a trade, they won't hesitate to call on me."

Nothing personal, but Johnson would like to make Broadway's hopes irrelevant. Earlier this week, hitting coach Tom McCraw called Johnson the key to Washington's lineup. But the coaching staff has already begun work on tweaking Johnson's approach. By his own admission, his stance has gradually opened up over the past few years. He began moving too much at the plate, bringing his front foot in and back before striding into the ball. Thus, he grew vulnerable to inside pitches. So he is already trying to close his stance.

"It just has to be done," McCraw said. "I just don't see any other way. If you have a weakness that's too significant, major league pitchers are going to exploit the hell out of you. He has one."

Early Wednesday morning, the hallway under Space Coast Stadium was empty, except for Johnson, stretching his back even before he went to the field. Quietly, after the workout, he returned to the training room for more stretching. There is no detail he won't tend to, no body part he won't protect. This is it, his opportunity. He has been to the World Series. Sitting at his locker, he mulled a question about whether he'll ever have the opportunity to get back.

"If I can stay healthy . . ." he said.

Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company