VIERA, Fla. -- Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson entered the club's dugout at Space Coast Stadium on Friday afternoon and jokingly grimaced in pain as he touched the two steps he needed to reach the playing surface.
"Ugh, ugh," Johnson said.
Johnson then smiled and proclaimed that his right leg is getting better. It was almost five months ago that Johnson suffered the worst injury of his career. On Sept. 23, Johnson fractured his right femur (upper leg bone) in the bottom of the eighth inning, when he collided with right fielder Austin Kearns on a blooper hit by Mets third baseman David Wright.
"I [checked out the replay]," Johnson said. "It took a while, a couple months. I just wanted to see it. [I] looked at it a couple more times, and just watched the leg flop."
Seeing the play unfold the first time was enough for Kearns, who suffered a sore left side and missed seven of the last eight games.
"I haven't seen [the replay]," Kearns said. "I don't really care to. I'm trying not to think about it. It took a little time. It's an unfortunate thing."
Manager Manny Acta witnessed the horrific collision as the third-base coach of the Mets. Two years earlier, as the third-base coach for the Expos, Acta saw Johnson miss more than a month of the season when a ground ball hit by Rockies shortstop Royce Clayton fracture Johnson's right cheekbone.
"What a coincidence," Acta said. "[Some of the] worst [injuries] I've seen in the last five years have involved Nick. I saw Nick take a ball off his eye in Colorado. And I saw him [break his leg] as a New York Met."
After lying on the ground for several minutes on that cloudy September day, Johnson was taken off the field on a stretcher, and he was transported to New York Hospital Queens, where the surgery took place. A titanium rod and
three screws were put in the leg in order for Johnson to put weight on it right away.
Johnson was frustrated during the offseason because the leg was healing slowly. But additional surgeries to remove scar tissue and some of the screws helped Johnson get some movement back. During that period, he has gained about 15 pounds.
"I seemed to be going to therapy [in Sacramento, Calif.] three days a week, and for a while there, [and] it wasn't going anywhere," Johnson said. "Those two surgeries really helped ... got it going a lot."
Johnson is still walking with a noticeable limp and he said that he hopes to start playing his first Major League game of 2007 sometime in June.
"Everything is so weak in my right leg -- my hip, my quad, everything," he said. "I still don't have full flexion. To walk for a long period of time, it gets sore. I sit down for a minute. That's because it's so weak. I've got to start pushing it because the bone, I think, is pretty much healed."
General manager Jim Bowden said that Johnson's return will be determined early next week. Dr. Benjamin Shaffer, the team's physician and orthopedist, and his staff are planning to look at the X-rays on Monday to determine how long Johnson will be out of action.
"There is not enough information to put a timetable [on the leg right now]," Bowden said.
Johnson said he has no regrets about what happened between him and Kearns on the field, saying: "It was a tough ball to get. We both missed it by about a foot."
The two have become good friends. During the offseason, they text messaged each other on a regular basis.
"If he [holds it against me], he didn't tell me," Kearns said. "We were too busy talking about fantasy football, playoff football, playoff basketball and all that stuff."
Johnson's absence means a several things to the Nationals. Acta announced that Kearns will be bat cleanup. During his career, Kearns has batted .257 (167-for-650) with 32 home runs and 100 RBIs while batting fourth.
"I've hit in the middle of the order pretty much the whole time I've been playing," Kearns said. "I'm used to it, moving around some, but anywhere in the middle."
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As far as first base is concerned, Larry Broadway will get the first crack at being the starter. Broadway played for Triple-A New Orleans last season and hit .288 with 15 home runs and 78 RBIs.
In fact, Acta called Broadway this offseason to tell him that he could be an important part of the team in 2007. Acta remembered the great Spring Training Broadway had in 2004.
"It was good to hear his voice again," Broadway said on the phone a few weeks ago. "I was happy that he got the job. They need some young blood out on the field. I think it will be good for the team. It was nice that he came out and called me."
Broadway went to the Venezuelan Winter League and didn't swing the bat very well, so Bowden acquired Travis Lee and Dmitri Young as insurance.
Lee is considered an outstanding defensive first baseman, but he is coming off one of his toughest offensive seasons. In 114 games with the Devil Rays in 2006, the 31-year-old Lee hit .224 with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs. Tampa Bay ended up giving him his unconditional release in early September.
Last season, Young, 33, played with the Tigers, but was given his unconditional release on Sept. 6, because of lack of performance. He was hitting .250 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs in 48 games at the time of his departure. Young missed more than two months of the season because of a
right quadriceps injury and personal matters.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.