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Nationals' Johnson May Be Out Until June

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."

It took a couple of months before he was ready to watch replays of the gruesome collision. His thoughts when he did see it? "That hurt," Johnson replied, smiling.

Kearns, though, can't bear to watch.

"I haven't seen it. Didn't really care to," the outfielder said. "Just being out there when it happened was enough. I'm trying not to think about it."

The two stayed in touch over the past several months, text-messaging or talking about fantasy football, about other sports _ about pretty much anything other than what Kearns called "a freak thing."

It marked an end to what was a breakthrough season for Johnson, who set career highs with a .290 batting average, 46 doubles, 23 homers, 77 RBIs and 110 walks.

"Statistically speaking, Nick Johnson was the most productive hitter we had here last year," Acta said. "Whether it's one month or six, we're going to miss him, no matter what. But we made certain moves to stop the gap that he's going to leave there."

Minor leaguer Larry Broadway, Travis Lee or Dmitri Young could be at first base on opening day, while Kearns is expected to bat fourth.

Still, as Kearns acknowledged, the Nationals are going to miss Johnson's bat.

"He's a guy who gets on base. He's going to hit, but he takes a lot of walks. So he's going to be on base a lot, he's going to drive in runs," Kearns said. "It definitely takes a hit out of the lineup."

Johnson set a personal best in another category in 2006: 147 games played.

He made at least one trip to the disabled list in each of his five previous major league seasons with the New York Yankees and Expos-Nationals. There was a long list of injuries: thumb, left wrist, right hand, back, broken cheekbone, heel.

Nothing as debilitating, though, as what he's facing now.

"He's still got a lot left to do," Kearns said, "but he's a lot better than the last time we all saw him."

© 2007 The Associated Press