A Long Struggle To Get Back Up And Running

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

SACRAMENTO -- It is 8:40 a.m., and the sun is just beginning to bake through the windows of a gym that sits anonymously in a business park on the edge of California's capital city. Cars whip by on an adjacent freeway, state workers gearing up to make the government go. And Nick Johnson sits back in a chair at what is his own office, bouncing his right leg.

Up, down -- up, down -- up, down -- up, down -- nervous energy in a building otherwise devoid of it. That leg, not long ago, housed a titanium rod and three screws, the tools used to mend a devastating break suffered -- goodness, it's 16 months ago now. Sixteen months since the last time Johnson played a game for the Washington Nationals, back when that up, down -- up, down came in between at-bats in the middle of a stellar season, not in an empty gym in his home town, baseball still far off.

"It's been a long time," Johnson says hours later, sitting in his white Cadillac Escalade. A red bowl caked with the remnants of that morning's oatmeal sits on the floor in the back seat. Sweat spikes his thinning black hair. More than two hours of workouts -- an elliptical trainer conquered, plyometric balls slung against walls, free weights and a Nautilus machine attacked and abandoned, and 30 minutes of running the bases, home to first and first to third and then back home again -- are done.

"A long time," he repeats.

The way Johnson feels and looks now, he is betting that it will, finally, be a short time before he is back on the field, and as the traffic races by, he absent-mindedly ticks off the things to which he looks forward. "BP, seeing pitches live. Just to see the ball, just to get in the box, be on the field."

When the Nationals hold their first full-squad workout in less than a month, Johnson will be a focal point. He has no remaining physical limitations, and he will be left to battle with Dmitri Young -- the National League's comeback player of the year in 2007, now the incumbent -- for a starting job. There will be no more important story line than how the team resolves the conundrum of potentially having two healthy first basemen, neither of whom can play another position, both of whom are well compensated (Johnson will earn $5.5 million in 2008, Young $5 million).

"We have to see him in baseball shape, his timing and everything," Manager Manny Acta said of Johnson. But Acta is well aware of Johnson's breakout 2006 -- 46 doubles, 100 runs, a .428 on-base percentage that was third in the NL. Outfielder Alfonso Soriano (46 homers, 41 steals) and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (110 RBI) received more attention on that club. But were they more productive?

"Nick, even when Soriano was here, was the most productive player we had because of his on-base percentage," Acta said. "That prolongs innings, prolongs games. It wins games. It's huge. He has so much value for us."

Johnson understands that, if quietly. His weight, which ballooned to more than 260 pounds during an inactive offseason a year ago, is back down to 238 or so. Not the ideal number, which he believes is 230, but about what he played at back in '06. He is taking grounders and running on the field, swinging a bat in the batting cage. The difference between this January morning and back in November?

"Night and day," said Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, one of Johnson's training partners. "Not even close."

A Painful Process

When Johnson broke his femur on Sept. 23, 2006, in a violent collision with Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns at Shea Stadium in New York, Nationals doctors expected him back for spring training of 2007. By January, the projection was for May, then June, then the all-star break. During that time, Johnson's daughter Brianna, who'll turn 2 next week, learned to walk. Her wobbly gait occasionally looked like she was mimicking her daddy, dragging her tiny right leg across the floor of their spacious home in nearby Fair Oaks.

Even as Brianna straightened her stride, the pain never left Johnson's hip, where that titanium rod was inserted. He could swing the bat but not thrust himself out of the box. He couldn't range quickly to his left, couldn't backhand a ball, pivot and fire. "You start to put together a timeline," he said, and by maybe late July, he knew the season was done.

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