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Nick Johnson dodges injuries to make Orioles' Opening Day roster

Coming back from wrist surgery, first-baseman spent last season in Cleveland's minor-league system

By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

6:33 PM EDT, April 5, 2012

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Before the Orioles finished their exhibition schedule Wednesday at Triple-A Norfolk, manager Buck Showalter joked with Nick Johnson that the first baseman needed to stay healthy for just a matter of hours before the 5 p.m. roster deadline.

The oft-injured Johnson, a non-roster invitee whose contract would be purchased by the Orioles by that deadline, took a ball to the ankle later in the day.

"It just smoked him on the ankle," Showalter said. "He asked what time was it. I said it's a little early."

Johnson has had multiple surgeries on his right wrist, the most recent making it painful just to take batting practice. After spending the 2011 season with the Indians' Triple-A team in Columbus, he went through the offseason unsigned until the Orioles gave him a minor-league deal the week before spring training begin.

In Sarasota, his corner of the Orioles clubhouse became emptier as the weeks went by until he was the only player remaining among a cluster of nine lockers.

"It's been a long road and I've been through a whole lot of stuff," Johnson said. "I put a lot of hard work in to get back. I'm excited and I'm grateful for being given the opportunity."

He adds a much-needed veteran bat to the lineup, and with a .401 career on-base percentage, he could hit in the No. 2 spot on certain days. Still a solid fielder at first, he also can give the Orioles at-bats as the designated hitter.

"You've got to get a routine, but other than that you just prepare," Johnson said. "I love taking ground balls, so I'll continue to do that no matter what and go from there."

The 33-year-old Johnson showed this spring that he still has some quality baseball left. He hit .292 (14-for-48) with a .393 on-base percentage, second-highest on the 25-man roster (Endy Chavez had a .500 OBP).

"Knock on wood, he's feeling better than he has in a long time," Showalter said. "He can help us.

He's come a long way since this time last season.

"It doesn't compare," Johnson said. "I think this time last year, I was doing some hand exercise drills."

Rotation could be tinkered after homestand

Showalter suggested that he might adjust the Orioles' starting rotation following the team's season-opening six-game homestand.

The Orioles have their first off-day on April 12, which would allow them to skip No. 5 starter Wei-Yin Chen in the rotation following his first scheduled start Tuesday at home against the Yankees. The Orioles wouldn't need a fifth starter again until April 20 in Anaheim.

"It just fit best for us going forward and gave us the flexibility going into the off day to do some things if we need to," Showalter said. "If you understand some of the dates of when people are eligible to come back or not come back, it all falls the best for us."

Showalter said he wants to give Chen, a Taiwanese-born left-hander who pitched in Japan the last four years, as much time as possible to get adjusted.

April 12 is also the day in which Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada is eligible to come of the disabled list.

Camden Yards renovations lauded

The offseason improvements to Camden Yards — which include a 500-seat roof deck above the batter's eye in straightaway center field and the lowering of the right-field out-of-town scoreboard — shouldn't affect play much.

In fact, the lowering of the scoreboard four feet and the addition of a railing will help umpires make rulings on home runs in right field. According to the ground rules, any ball that lands on top of the scoreboard itself is a home run. There's also three feet of metal between the scoreboard and the railing that will give a distinctive sound when hit by a ball, similar to above the grounds crew's pen in right-center field.

"That's a big thing for us," Showalter said. "From a ground-rule and umpire standpoint, that's easy. If fact, it's actually easier now."

Showalter added that the roof deck is high enough that it shouldn't interfere with a hitter's viewpoint.

"It shouldn't be a problem at all," Showalter said. "I don't expect it to be. It's well above the area where the ball comes out of. It's a whole lot better than anything in Boston. They have people sitting there. [Here] it shouldn't be in the eye at all. In fact, it's got a chance to be a really nice addition."

Around the horn

Left-handed pitcher Dana Eveland, who was designated for assignment last week, cleared waivers and accepted his outright assignment to Triple-A Norfolk, where he will likely be a member of the Tides' starting rotation. … Left-hander Troy Patton, one of the final players to make the roster out of camp, said he's unsure of his bullpen role. He's the team's sole lefty reliever. … Showalter didn't reveal his starting lineup for Friday's opener. "The intrigue, I know, is killing you," he told reporters. I don't think it's keeping anybody up at night." Showalter added that he feels comfortable with his choices in the leadoff and cleanup spots, but added there might be some "unconventional" options there down the road. … One of Showalter's toughest moves of the spring was optioning left-hander , who allowed just two earned runs in 13 1/3 innings this spring, to Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday. "He'll be back in some form," Showalter said. "He had a great spring, and we're lucky to have him and he's unlucky to have an option."

eencina@baltsun.com