Johnson Still Uncertain of Return Date

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

By now, it is a routine. Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson arrives at the ballpark early, takes grounders at first base, then hits in the batting cage. He has not yet taken live batting practice on the field. He has not yet made violent movements such as sprinting to field a bunt or diving for a ball down the line, the kind of progress that would tell him he is ready to return from the broken left leg he suffered last September.

"It feels good," Johnson said yesterday. "Getting stronger. It's in between. Sometimes, it's not pain, just a feeling like it's weak but that I'm pushing it, getting it better."

Immediately after the injury, Ben Shaffer, the Nationals' orthopedist, predicted Johnson would be ready for Opening Day. But Shaffer and the team discovered that Johnson is an exceptionally slow healer, and the team has been reluctant to put out timetables since.

When he arrived at spring training in February, Johnson -- somewhat arbitrarily -- threw out June 1 as a target for his return. That's Friday, and Johnson will be nowhere near ready by then. Asked if he was certain he would return this year, he said: "Hopefully. When? I don't know."

Johnson hit .290 with 46 doubles and 77 RBI with a .428 on-base percentage last year.

Pitchers on the Mend

Reliever Luis Ayala, still working his way back from ligament replacement surgery last spring, is scheduled to be in Washington today. Manager Manny Acta said Ayala threw three innings at the team's spring training complex in Viera, Fla., on Monday, and he will likely throw for the major league staff before club officials determine the best course for rehabilitation in the minors. . . .

Right-hander John Patterson threw 25 fastballs in his first bullpen session since going on the disabled list May 6.

"It felt good being back up there," he said. "I was happy with the way it went. My arm's not hurting, which is good."

Patterson will wait to see how he feels today before determining a next step. He said he would have to rebuild arm strength before throwing a simulated game, meaning his return -- even if he has no setbacks -- is still well off.

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