Johnson returns after long layoff

Johnson returns after long layoff

JUPITER, Fla. -- Wearing a white shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers, Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson sat near his locker in Viera, Fla., on Wednesday afternoon and acknowledged that the juices were flowing -- and for good reason. In a few hours, he was expected to play in his first game since Sept. 23, 2006.

"I'm excited about getting out there and playing," Johnson said. "I just want to play the game and everything -- bust out of the box, doing everything on the field. It's a baseball game, and you don't know what's going to happen. There shouldn't be any problems."

That September day marked the worst in Johnson's baseball career. It was the bottom of the eighth inning at Shea Stadium when Mets third baseman David Wright hit a blooper near the right-field line. Both Johnson and right fielder Austin Kearns went after the ball, causing the ugly collision that nearly destroyed Johnson's career.

Johnson ended up with a broken right leg, while Kearns suffered general soreness all over his body. After Johnson was taken out of the stadium by ambulance, the TV cameras panned to Kearns in right field. It was clear that Kearns was upset as tears streamed down his face.

"You always fear for the worst. It was tough, man," Kearns said. "I think anybody who was right in that little circle, there were a lot of things going through everybody's head."

Three surgeries and months of rehab later, Johnson played against the Marlins on Wednesday night and went 0-for-1 with three putouts in a 3-3 tie at Roger Dean Stadium.

In his first at-bat in the top of the first inning, Johnson was hit on the right arm by a pitch from Scott Olsen. Two innings later, with right-hander Logan Kensing on the mound, Johnson came to the plate with no outs and hit a fly ball to center fielder Cameron Maybin.

Johnson was replaced by Josh Whitesell in the bottom of the fourth inning. He said it took him a while to settle down and he felt like he was preparing for a World Series game.

"The swing has a [long way] to go, but we have a month left, so I'm not too worried about the swing," Johnson said. "It's more about my health. The swing will come."

There was a scary moment in the bottom of the second inning and it was similar to the play at Shea Stadium in '06. Marlins shortstop Robert Andino hit a blooper near the right-field line. Johnson, second baseman Felipe Lopez and right fielder Elijah Dukes all went after the ball with Dukes finally calling for it and making the catch. Talk about Deja vu.

"That's funny. The first game," Johnson said. "We have a great outfielder and a great second baseman. They have a lot of speed. It was dead on. It may have had a little more air under it. You have to go after it. But I sure as [anything] took a peek -- a big long peek."

Manager Manny Acta was the Mets' third-base coach when Johnson had his unfortunate accident, and he said that Wednesday's play in the bottom of the second proved that Johnson was not afraid to go after the ball.

"He is grinder. Nick has had a lot of injuries, but ... he plays hard and he really doesn't think about getting hurt," Acta said.

With his right leg now at 100 percent, it's time for Johnson to be baseball ready. General manager Jim Bowden has said that when a player misses as much time as Johnson has, it's going to take at least a month to be ready for Opening Day.

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"I'm not going to be concerned if Nick goes 0-for 60," Bowden said. "What I'm going to care about is the last seven or eight days of Spring Training -- March 22 to Opening Day. How does he look? He is back to where he was. Do I think it's going to happen three weeks from now? Yes I do. I don't see him favoring the leg at all."

Johnson officially finds himself competing with Dmitri Young for the starting job at first base. Johnson reiterated on Friday that he would not accept a role as a backup and wouldn't mind a trade if he ends up being on the bench.

"I want to play every day," Johnson said. "Dmitri had a great year. He wants to play every day. I want to play every day. I want to go out and have fun and let the chips fall."

A healthy Nick Johnson would be a big boost to the Nationals. He is known to post good on-base percentages and is considered a better defensive first baseman than Young. The same year he broke his leg, Johnson hit .290 with 23 home runs and a .428 on-base percentage.

"He had his best year when he got hurt," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "You are talking about a guy that walks 100 times, scores 100 runs with a four-something on-base percentage. He is a pretty big guy to have in your lineup. Defensively, he can play first real well also. He understands the game."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.