By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 26 -- Manny Acta will not officially announce his starting first baseman until perhaps Saturday, when the Washington Nationals convene at their new ballpark for the final exhibition game of the spring. But this week -- a week when the manager said he would play his regulars for nine innings in back-to-back games -- Nick Johnson started at first and did not come out during two road games. Dmitri Young remained at the team's complex in Viera, taking at-bats in minor league games and monitoring a small but nagging back injury.
To anyone who has monitored the Nationals' progress over the last six weeks in windswept central Florida, Johnson's comeback from a broken leg suffered in September 2006 now seems complete. There is nothing he hasn't done, no test he hasn't passed.
"Pleasantly surprised," is how General Manager Jim Bowden put it Wednesday. "I think he'll be 100 percent when he walks on that field Opening Day, and I would not have predicted that when we walked into spring training."
Young, 34, is not expected to start the year on the disabled list, and indeed Acta said he would play Thursday against Baltimore, the Nationals' final Grapefruit League game. But he arrived in camp weighing 298 pounds, and club officials still want him to lose more weight. He strained his lower back and side in the batting cage late last month, a condition that has limited him to seven exhibition games and 23 at-bats, in which he is hitting .261 with one extra-base hit.
"We've just got to be careful, because he's still got that tight back," Acta said.
Johnson, meanwhile, is in such a routine that Wednesday's 0-for-3 performance in a 10-2 loss to Atlanta, in which he drew his seventh walk of the spring, merely seems like part of the process. "I'm finding it," Johnson said, and he talks about the daily battle he wages with himself to stay back on the ball, to let his hands to the work. He played in 17 games with 49 at-bats -- more than twice as many as Young. He is hitting .286 with four doubles and a homer, and has basically eliminated the memories from 2007, when he limped around all year.
"He's almost there," Acta said. "He's like everybody else. One swing is going to look like it's a little long, and then -- whack! -- he gets a ball, and it's, 'Hey, I guess it's not that long.' I think he's ready to go. He's done well this spring against every type of competition they've thrown out there -- lefties, righties, minor leaguers, established big leaguers."
Acta has long believed that Johnson's ability to take pitches and draw walks can transform a lineup. His on-base percentage of .419 in 2005 and '06 ranked third in the National League over those two seasons behind only St. Louis's Albert Pujols and Colorado's Todd Helton. "He has that given talent," Acta said.
But the most significant differences between Johnson and Young this spring have likely been on the base paths and in the field. Though each has one error, other infielders say -- both privately and publicly -- that they have more confidence in Johnson's ability to scoop out poor throws, thus saving them errors. Analyst John Dewan of "The Fielding Bible" -- an annual publication that quantifies defensive performance -- rated Young as baseball's worst defensive first baseman in 2007. The disparity is to the point that when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was asked about Johnson's propensity to get on base, he steered the conversation elsewhere.
"It's a big part of the game," Zimmerman said, "but I think defensively is where you're going to see the biggest difference. It'll help all of us. It's a really big part of what he brings."
The other difference: running. Johnson's offseason workout program -- in which he lost nearly 30 pounds -- included hitting, lifting, agility drills and conditioning. The only thing he hadn't done is slide.
"It's in the back of your head," Johnson said. "You get that little guy back there, and you wonder. I tried to tell myself, 'Hell, I tried it when I had all that pain in my leg.' Now, I don't have any of that."
So the first slide of spring, which came at second base after a double, was significant. So was the slide a few days later, when he came trucking around third, headed for home. He slid directly into the catcher. He was thrown out. It didn't matter. For Acta, that was a true test, and the manager said Wednesday, "He hasn't shown me any signs of struggles at all" when running.
Young, however, has not moved as well on the base paths. Though earlier this week he scored from first base on a double that rattled around in the left field corner, the club continues to work with him on finding proper dosages of medication to control his diabetes, which he believes is preventing him from losing weight. For now, though, there is a strong possibility that Young -- who hit .320 last season and became the NL's comeback player of the year -- will be a dangerous switch-hitting pinch hitter off Washington's bench.
Even with his progress, Johnson is only beginning to allow himself to think about winning the job. He said Wednesday he was excited about getting to Washington to see his 2-year-old daughter, Brianna. The other day, Brianna fell at her grandmother's house, ending up with a fat lip. Johnson smiled about it.
"She's a Johnson," he said. "She gets hurt."
He laughed out loud. He does not expect that to be his fate the rest of the season. He expects to be on the field, playing baseball, when the season starts Sunday night against the Braves on national television.
"I get chills just thinking about it," he said.