Is Small Step for Johnson a Leap for Nats?

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

VIERA, Fla., March 21 -- At 12:55 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium was empty, a Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves still more than six hours off. But down the right field line at the barren ballpark, two figures emerged: Nick Johnson, the Washington Nationals first baseman, and Lee Kuntz, the man with whom Johnson has spent an inordinate amount of time this spring, the club's athletic trainer.

With virtually no one watching, Johnson's season began. He is recovering from a broken right leg suffered last September, and with his teammates a week from breaking camp, he has not yet swung a bat. But just before 1 p.m., he began a stiff sprint up the stands, Kuntz trailing swiftly behind him. He then walked down a row of seats, stepped slowly down the next flight, and started another sprint upward.

In a world in which no one will predict when Johnson will return, this is how progress is measured, by zigzagging through a vacant ballpark long before a pitch is thrown.

"It's tough to start, even to start jogging," Johnson said a half-hour later, sitting in front of his locker. "But that was pretty good out there. I just got to trust it."

Before Wednesday, Johnson had not yet run outdoors, relegated instead to riding a stationary bicycle and using an elliptical trainer, so he marked his 15-minute session on the stadium stairs as a milestone. Still, neither Johnson nor the team's medical staff is willing to put a timetable on his potential return, which raises the question: Could he miss the whole season?

"I hope not," Johnson said.

Ben Shaffer, the team's head orthopedist, said that shouldn't be a point in question.

"Medically, the fracture has healed," Shaffer said by phone. "Right now, the issue is getting him into baseball shape, having him get his skills back. I don't know, from a timetable standpoint, what the date will be. But we're not looking at this as a season-threatening issue."

Shaffer said Johnson has done some light throwing, landing on that right leg. "There's no real restraint on him now," Shaffer said. "I don't see a reason he couldn't get to the point where he can throw hard and swing a bat when he's comfortable with it."

Kuntz declined to comment, but laid out Johnson's rehabilitation program through a team spokesman. Johnson rides a bike for 30 minutes as a daily warmup. Over the course of the day, he spends two more 20-minute sessions either on the elliptical trainer or the bike. He endures strengthening exercises by stepping off boxes, performs deep lunges, works on his balance, walks with a giant elastic between his ankles. He uses Kuntz as a resistant force, pushing against him, helping the bone accommodate more stress. He has spent significant time in a swimming pool at the nearby apartment complex where he makes his spring home.

And Wednesday, he began the outdoor work, jogging a quarter of the way around the park, walking another quarter, then jogging again, followed by the work on the stairs. It is, he realizes, light years from hitting a double to the gap, from sitting in the cleanup spot that was supposed to be his this season. But it is at least something, and he was clearly satisfied afterward.

"It just got to a point that last time around, I just said, 'Screw it,' " he said. "There's pain. It's weak. But mentally, I've just got to let it go and go as hard as possible. I've got to get comfortable doing that."

Yet he is trying to find comfort in an inherently uncomfortable situation. Austin Kearns, the right fielder with whom Johnson collided to break the leg, said, "There's nothing worse than not playing."

Johnson handles it as best he can. He sticks around for each game, watching at least five or six innings from the dugout. He eats with his teammates, plays with his baby daughter and tries not to think about the season starting without him.

"I think he's doing as well as he can, really," Kearns said. "He's in good spirits. I'm sure it's killing him, but he hasn't shown that to any of us."

What will show, eventually, is the impact Johnson's loss will have on the entire Nationals lineup. Though not an ideal cleanup hitter -- he has never hit more than the 23 homers he hit last season -- he is exceptional at getting on base, a man who hit 81 doubles over the past two seasons. Whether Dmitri Young or Travis Lee ends up at first, the hole left by Johnson will have a trickledown effect throughout the batting order.

"Kearns wasn't going to hit cleanup here if we had Nick," Manager Manny Acta said. "We were going to sandwich Nick between [third baseman Ryan] Zimmerman and Kearns. [Catcher Brian] Schneider was probably going to be an ideal seventh hitter, and he's probably going to end up having to hit sixth."

Johnson, though, doesn't allow himself to think of lineups, replacements, any of that peripheral stuff these days. Wednesday, as he neared the top of one flight of stairs, he gasped, "Oh my God," before starting back down. Ten minutes into his stint, he tore off his sweat shirt and tossed it to the ground. When he wrapped up the session, he stopped on the concourse, bent at the waist and put his hands on his knees. Kuntz stood before him and applauded the effort. There wasn't a player -- or a return date -- in sight.

"I can't think about when I might be back," Johnson said. "I've got to work on getting the thing strong like I did out there today, taking steps slowly. We'll get there."

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