By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008
JUPITER, Fla., Feb. 27 -- A good four hours before the Washington Nationals arrived for their first exhibition game Wednesday, Nick Johnson -- freshly showered, gel in his hair, brand-new Under Armour shirt on his back -- all but bounded into the home clubhouse at the club's spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla.
"What's up, Nick?" asked Ryan Zimmerman, the third baseman, knowing what the night to come would mean.
"Nothin'," Johnson said. "Slept in my uniform last night."
Even if spring training is, truthfully, a grind and Johnson is, by now, a 29-year-old man, here was a glimpse of a little boy getting his chance at the bigs. Never mind that the temperature was unseasonably cool, that only a couple of thousand people dotted the stands at Roger Dean Stadium, and that the results of the Nationals' 3-3 tie against the Florida Marlins will have absolutely no significance next year, next month, even tomorrow.
For Johnson, it was his first semblance of competition since Sept. 23, 2006, the day he fractured his right leg, the last day he played in a baseball game. The results: He was hit by the first pitch he saw, a fastball from Marlins lefty Scott Olsen that grazed his right arm. In the fourth, he popped up to shallow center against right-hander Logan Kensing. He went 0 for 1 and didn't have to field any grounders.
On paper, it was hardly anything about which to get jittery. Going through it, though, was different.
"I was flying pretty high today, all day long," Johnson said after he completed his three innings in the field. "It was like a World Series game a little bit, just that little rush of getting back out there. . . . A huge adrenaline rush since last night or this morning."
One trick for Johnson over the next month -- when he will wrestle with Dmitri Young for the first base job -- will be to put behind the juice from his return and then balance his production with preparing for the season. After more than a year filled with fits and stops, Johnson has been declared healthy by everyone who matters -- doctors, athletic trainers, General Manager Jim Bowden and himself.
"The last time we saw him, he was rehabbing and doing all that stuff, and it seemed like he couldn't get away from that limp," Zimmerman said. "You felt bad for him. But he worked hard. He looks better now than he did his breakout year" of 2006.
Bowden, who signed Young to a two-year, $10 million extension in the middle of last season, said he wants to let Johnson ease into the spring, to get his timing back, before making any real evaluations.
"Do I expect him to be the same Nick Johnson that he was two years ago tonight? Of course not," Bowden said before Wednesday's game. ". . . I have no expectations until we get to the third week in March. And then, the last seven to 10 days of spring training, then we're going to see where they are baseball-wise.
"I don't care if he goes 0 for 60 between now and then. I'm not going to evaluate him till we get there."
The guys in Johnson's own clubhouse, however, will be evaluating the situation as it develops. For the most part, Nationals players have enormous respect for both Johnson and Young. As right fielder Austin Kearns said: "They both should be in there every day. But unless we get a DH here in the next three weeks, that's not going to be able to happen."
Which brings the return of Johnson to what might be a jarring conclusion. Bowden was going through the roster befofre the game, and considering the number of players who are out of options, he has come to a conclusion.
"I'm not sure you can actually field this team without making a trade," he said. "I'm not sure that's possible, if everything goes well."
That could mean a first baseman, an infielder, an outfielder -- whatever. But even as more than a dozen scouts sat behind the plate Wednesday night, Johnson's return to the field was more about the moment than what it might lead to.
And wouldn't you know what happened in the bottom of the second? Florida's Robert Andino popped a ball over Johnson's head at first base. Sound familiar? It was exactly such a play that put Johnson in this predicament in the first place.
"It was dead-on," Johnson said.
On that day, at Shea Stadium in New York, then-Nationals second baseman Jos¿ Vidro was too immobile to make a true run at the ball. Kearns and Johnson pursued it, collided violently, and Johnson was carted off the field.
Wednesday, Johnson broke for the ball off the bat, simply on instinct. This one tailed into foul territory. Felipe L¿pez -- a speedier second baseman than Vidro -- was in the mix. Elijah Dukes, 220 pounds of linebacker-like right fielder, tracked it as well. At the last minute, Dukes called off the others and grabbed the ball.
And Nick Johnson, playing in a baseball game for the first time in 17 months, ducked out of the way.
"I sure as hell took a peek" at the oncoming fielders, Johnson said. "A looooong peek."
With that, he smiled and laughed. The next time he takes the field, sometime over the weekend, the nerves will be gone. Before long, the swing will be back. And only then, finally, will the competition for the Nationals' first base job be under way.