Nationals' Johnson Slowly Getting His Timing Back

Washington's Nick Johnson is spending long hours on his stroke after missing most of the last two seasons.
Washington's Nick Johnson is spending long hours on his stroke after missing most of the last two seasons. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

VIERA, Fla., March 21 -- Nick Johnson started his morning with some hitting, and when he finished that he went to another field for some more hitting, and later on, after lunch, he put on his uniform, played 6 1/2 innings, and did some more hitting. Johnson's insistence to swing and swing some more came from two separate feelings -- gratitude, because his body finally feels good, and determination, because sometimes, his swing still doesn't.

"No, I wouldn't say my swing feels like I want it to," Johnson said. "But hopefully in these next couple weeks I can turn it up a notch. I'm just trying to get that feel, just to be ready when the bell rings."

Johnson arrived at Space Coast Stadium on Saturday morning with a .167 spring training average (5 for 30), not that he knew the numbers. He just knew the root cause: He was still searching for comfort. So at 10 a.m. he took batting practice on the main field, and then asked hitting coach Rick Eckstein to join him on a minor league field for another 15 minutes of work. On this day, the Washington Nationals had Johnson batting fourth, starting at first base. Still treated by those around him as a known commodity, Johnson intended to prove them right.

The great gap in Johnson's track record provides the context for this spring. Johnson, 30, didn't play at all in 2007 because of a right leg fracture. He played in 38 games last year because of a wrist injury. Other position players have missed single seasons and returned to old form, no problem, but few have ever been counted on to do so much after missing such big chunks of their prime. In the mid-1990s, because of assorted injuries, Eric Davis played only 37 games across a two-year stretch, and returned to Cincinnati in 1996, at age 33, hitting .287 with 26 home runs. With his famous prosthetic hip, Bo Jackson returned in 1993 after missing almost two full years, but he never matched his original potential. Ted Williams, like others in his generation, missed three full seasons because of World War II, and, well, "he did pretty good," Johnson said.

When one accounts for Johnson's prior history -- modest but manageable injuries from 2001 to '06 -- and the severity of his injuries since, there are few modern comparables.

"It's tough to know," said one National League scout, who has watched Johnson four or five times this spring. "Health is the big thing with him. He's missed so much time. His timing has sometimes looked a little off, but no, no red flags."

Even now that you need a telescope to view his track record, Johnson represents, to Washington, a known quantity: He works the count. He walks a lot. He reaches base four times in 10. Nationals Manager Manny Acta has said that Johnson will "be out there [at first base] regardless of what he does in spring training."

Said Acta: "It's a constant value."

For Johnson, hitting is more a matter of timing than muscle memory, and he's used the spring to recapture that. Never has he worried that his skills have eroded, he said. He'd be working on finding a rhythm no matter the situation; even those coming off 600 at-bat seasons, after all, must compensate for a winter of inactivity.

In recent weeks, Johnson has worked with Eckstein, studying video of his best season, 2006, and his best swings this spring. Right now, the swings are mirror images -- or at least that's the way it works when Johnson is taking batting practice. He's found a reliable stance, spreading his feet wider apart than they were during his short stint last season. Asked if he could feel evidence of the missed time, Johnson said, "I don't know, not really. I'm always working like this, and even if I hadn't missed two years I'd be working on my swing right now, getting it back to where it was."

On the minor league field, Eckstein watched from behind the cage. Coach Tim Foli threw round after round, alternating pitches on the inside and outside corners. After lashing a line drive to left-center field -- hands in, elbow tight -- Johnson declared himself happy with the result, and walked back to the clubhouse.

"You didn't even get to see my best stuff," Foli joked.

For the second day in a row, Johnson was starting.

"Hopefully," Eckstein said, "all these at-bats can trigger something."

When Johnson came to bat in the sixth inning against St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse, he was already 0 for 2. He took a called strike on the outside corner, then watched three straight balls. He fouled the fifth pitch of the at bat, loading the count. The sixth pitch Johnson skied to left-center field, towering, right into the wind -- and it hung up there long enough that you could watch it like a New Year's ball. It fell right behind the outfield fence. Johnson had an opposite-field home run, his third of the spring.

"He's capable of that," Acta later said. "The more at-bats he gets, the more he will feel comfortable, and we're happy where he's at. Everybody obviously wanted to see a .350 batting average right now, but that doesn't tell the full story of where he's at."

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