By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006
NEW YORK, Sept. 23 -- As soon as Nick Johnson's body slammed off that of Austin Kearns, he rolled limply to the turf, screamed in agony and flung his glove in the air, his expression mixing frustration with pain. In that moment Saturday afternoon, Johnson fractured the femur in his right leg, a dull murmur settled over Shea Stadium, and the shaken Washington Nationals gathered quietly, unsure of all that had transpired.
Two hours after the Nationals' 12-6 loss to the New York Mets, club officials announced the extent of Johnson's injury, one which could affect his preparedness for next season. Nationals orthopedist Ben Shaffer came up from Washington, and Johnson's surgery began after 11 p.m. at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens and continued past midnight.
The gruesome play, and an outpouring of support for Johnson, were the only topics of discussion in a silent visitors' clubhouse afterward.
"You sit there, and you see it, a teammate and a friend on the ground yelling in pain," Kearns said, "it makes you sick to your stomach."
Manager Frank Robinson and players described the scene as grisly, with Johnson prone and moaning in pain. After a nearly 15-minute process in which medical personnel worked to stabilize Johnson's right leg, he was finally rolled onto a stretcher and moved to a motorized cart.
"When they tried to move him," Robinson said, "you can't describe the sound."
The play happened in the eighth inning of a game which the Mets led 10-5 behind a go-ahead, three-run homer from David Wright. In the eighth, Wright came up again against reliever Jason Bergmann, and he popped a ball down the first base line.
Johnson, who spent time on the disabled list in each of his previous five years in the majors, chased after the ball, which was lofted over his head. Kearns charged in from his position in right, with Jose Vidro cutting in on an angle from second -- "no man's land," as Robinson called it. None of the players was confident enough that he could catch the ball to call the others off.
"Nick had no view of Austin coming," Vidro said, "and Austin was looking at the ball straight up and didn't see Nick at all."
Neither Kearns nor Johnson pulled up, and nearly their entire bodies collided. The ball fell to the ground, but before he picked it up -- Wright ended up with a triple -- Vidro was already frantically signaling for medical personnel.
"I just heard a crack," Vidro said. "I was like, 'Oh my God.' My stomach got really bad right there. . . . I'm just hoping that he comes out okay, because it was very ugly."
After Johnson was carted off, he was replaced by Robert Fick, and the two teams sleep-walked through the final inning.
"I think you could tell by everything -- the game, the fans, everything," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, "it was kind of like everyone wanted to quit and not play the last inning."
Johnson, 28, was enjoying a career year. Though he hit second in Saturday's lineup -- part of a shakeup in which Robinson moved leadoff man Alfonso Soriano to third, giving the left fielder a better chance to collect the six RBI he needs to reach 100 -- Johnson has spent much of the season batting cleanup. After going 0 for 3 with a walk on Saturday, he finishes the year with career highs in games (147), hits (145), doubles (46), homers (23), RBI (77), runs (100), walks (110), slugging percentage (.520) and on-base percentage (.428).
"It's just unfortunate for him it happened this late in the year -- especially having the great year he was having -- that it has to end like this," Robinson said.
Despite his history of injuries, Johnson has long vowed never to change his hard-charging ways. Since first coming to the majors with the New York Yankees in 2001, he has been out with a bruised heel, a fractured cheekbone, a lower back strain, a fractured right hand, a bruised left wrist and a sprained right wrist. The unrelated nature of the injuries was one reason the Nationals signed him to a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension during spring training. They felt if he could avoid anything bizarre, he would produce.
Now, though, he has another lengthy rehabilitation process ahead of him. With that in mind, seven teammates -- Kearns, Zimmerman, Soriano, catcher Brian Schneider and pitchers John Patterson, Ramon Ortiz and Ryan Wagner -- visited with Johnson in the hospital Saturday evening.
"We're concerned," Robinson said, "and everybody in that clubhouse is very concerned for him and his welfare."