By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson is well enough to fly, well enough to walk without crutches, well enough to travel with his wife for a Las Vegas getaway, as he did this week. But he still has a limp -- favoring the right leg he broke in a collision in September -- and club officials, medical staff and Johnson himself sound as if they aren't counting on one of the team's best hitters to be ready by Opening Day. He could, in fact, miss a month.
"It's coming along," Johnson said by phone yesterday. "But I don't know yet about the season. I just have to see where I am each week, then try to get better than that by the next week."
Johnson, 28, is one of a few injured Nationals whose progress will be monitored closely as spring training approaches, with pitchers and catchers likely due to report to Viera, Fla., around Feb. 13. Left-hander Mike O'Connor said yesterday that he, too, might be pushing it to be fully recovered from elbow surgery by the team's opener, April 2 at RFK Stadium against Florida. Team officials gave a more optimistic assessment of right-hander John Patterson, who made only eight starts last season while dealing with elbow problems.
But while the starting rotation will be cobbled together regardless of when O'Connor and Patterson are completely healthy, the loss of Johnson for even a few weeks would affect the cohesiveness of the lineup, in which Johnson hit fourth most of last season. Reserve Robert Fick and perennial prospect Larry Broadway -- a favorite of new manager Manny Acta -- would be the most likely candidates to replace Johnson at first to start the season.
Shortly after Johnson fractured his right femur in a violent collision with right fielder Austin Kearns on Sept. 23 in New York, Ben Shaffer, the team's orthopedist, was optimistic that Johnson would be ready by the start of the 2007 season. But Shaffer said yesterday that Johnson was slow to regain flexibility in his leg. Shaffer said that although Johnson has shown significant progress recently and that the bone is healing as expected, he would not predict Johnson would be ready by the opener.
"I'd love to see him back in April," Shaffer said. "I'd love to see him back on Opening Day. But even if the bone heals completely and his gait is back to normal, how conditioned is he going to be?
"The bottom line is I'm not looking for him on Day One. The fact is, he's such an important guy to the organization, the focus here has to be on complete recovery and getting him back when he and his body are ready. I'm going to target that for May 1 -- and if he makes progress that's exponential, then fantastic."
Johnson, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension last spring, hit .290 with a career-high 23 homers and 77 RBI and ranked third in the National League -- behind only St. Louis's Albert Pujols and Florida's Miguel Cabrera -- with a .428 on-base percentage. He said yesterday that he initially was frustrated by his lack of progress as he worked to rehabilitate his leg.
"At a certain point, it just wasn't going anywhere," Johnson said. "You start wondering what's going on."
Last month, he traveled from his home in Sacramento to Washington to meet with Shaffer, who also scheduled an appointment with two trauma specialists who are more familiar with broken femurs, the bone that runs from the hip to the knee. The doctors said the bone was progressing as expected, and that the target date for it being completely healed -- four months from the date of the injury -- was realistic.
"It was just good to hear it from them," Johnson said.
Shaffer said, though, Johnson needs to eliminate his limp and show a normal range of motion before he can be expected to begin getting in shape, let alone work on his baseball skills. Although he was only able to move his leg 90 degrees for a long stretch of time -- the result of blood building in his thigh muscles -- he has recently increased it to about 130 degrees, which Shaffer said is near normal.
"It really seems to have gotten going now," Johnson said.
O'Connor hasn't yet begun throwing, and likely won't for another month. He had minor surgery to repair a cartilage defect in his left elbow on Nov. 7, and he and Shaffer are unsure of how soon he'll be able to pitch off a mound once spring training begins, limiting his preparation for the season.
"It may be close," O'Connor said. "That's my goal, to be ready as soon as I can. But I think it's going to be hard for me to get a lot of games in. I'd like to try to be ready, but I don't know if that's realistic."
Shaffer said that Patterson, the presumed ace of an extremely shaky rotation, is "doing great," but that the team won't know for sure until he begins putting stress on his elbow by throwing all out.
"You don't know until the first day he goes out there and comes off the field and says, 'Man, that was fantastic,' " Shaffer said.
Nationals Notes: The team continues to be in touch with the agent for free agent pitcher Tomo Ohka, the former Milwaukee Brewer who pitched for the Washington franchise from 2002 to '05. Agent Jim Masteralexis said he has offers from four teams, including Washington. "I hope to keep the dialogue going," Masteralexis said. . . . Though the Nationals haven't yet announced starting times for their home games, the April 2 opener is almost certain to be an afternoon start, primarily because the Jewish holiday of Passover begins that night at sundown.