Nationals' Johnson May Be Out Until June

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By HOWARD FENDRICH
The Associated Press
Friday, February 16, 2007; 6:33 PM

VIERA, Fla. -- Nick Johnson's right hip hurts when he walks. Running? Forget that _ the pain's much too severe. So the Washington Nationals' cleanup hitter and first baseman quite simply has no idea when he'll be able to play baseball again, when he'll be fully recovered from the broken right leg that ended his career-best 2006 season.

He arrived at spring training Friday and was asked what he thinks the best-case scenario is for a return. Johnson paused, before offering a guess: "June?"

"But I won't know until I start hitting, running, getting on the field. It's hard to make a prediction now," he added. A few minutes later, he referred to the June estimate again: "That's in my head, but I just threw it out there. I don't know."

Team doctor Ben Shaffer will examine X-rays Monday, and manager Manny Acta and general manager Jim Bowden both said there's no way to put a timetable on when Johnson could play.

Indeed, no one knows when he'll start jogging, much less taking batting practice or fielding grounders. For now, Johnson is limited to rehabilitation work.

"People were being a little overoptimistic when they were talking about him being ready for spring training," Acta said. "We're not going to jeopardize 2008 _ and years beyond 2008 _ just to get Nick Johnson here two or three weeks earlier. Not at all. Nick is not going to be on the field until he's 100 percent ready to go, free of any type of risk of injuring himself out there."

Acta, then the Mets' third base coach, was at Shea Stadium on Sept. 23, when Johnson collided violently with right fielder Austin Kearns while they chased a popup. Johnson threw off his cap and dropped face-down on the outfield grass.

"I knew something was wrong right away," Acta said, "because I heard it. I heard the impact between him and Austin."

A titanium rod and screws were inserted in Johnson's leg during a two-hour operation that night; at the time, the team issued a statement from Shaffer saying Johnson was "expected to make a full recovery and be ready for 2007 spring training."

Johnson later had two more operations, to remove the screws and clean up scar tissue.

If the physical healing is ongoing, Johnson sounded as if there's no lingering psychological damage.

Speaking about what aspects of his game he's most concerned about when he returns, Johnson snickered a bit before answering, "Probably that ball over my head. Might have to peek the first time."


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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