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Johnson hopes it's break of new day

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Nick Johnson had no doubts in September.

The rod and screw that had been inserted in his leg were removed, and Johnson, the Washington Nationals first baseman, was starting to accomplish things that he hadn't done since his right femur had snapped a year before.

He could squat and push his hand back, simulating a backhanded stop at first base. He could run - not up to speed, but without real pain. He knew he'd be back for spring training; he knew he'd be able to compete for his starting job again. His manager wasn't so sure.

"Not until I saw him in spring training was I able to believe that Nick was going to play baseball at the level he is playing right now," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "Because when he left in September it was an ugly sight. Just to see him hobbling around the field and stuff."

How the leg holds up - and how Johnson does after a year-plus layoff - won't be known for months. But Johnson, who turns 30 in September, is in the best shape of his career after an offseason of continual rehabilitation and workouts.

"I have aches and pains, that you get from playing ball, but leg-wise I am fine," said Johnson, who was batting .263 with a .391 on-base percentage through 13 games. "I don't really think about it too much anymore."

He has come a long way since Sept. 23, 2006, when, while running for a shallow fly ball, he collided with right fielder Austin Kearns.

"When I was lying there I knew it was pretty bad. I just couldn't feel from where it snapped on down," he said. "It felt like someone turned a water hose on in my leg, all the blood just rushing to that area."

In the ambulance, he learned he'd have to have surgery. Still, he assumed he'd be back playing in 2007.

"I didn't want to miss a year," said Johnson, who underwent three procedures before the leg properly healed. "But it's a big bone to break and a lot of complications followed. But I was pushing as early as possible."

It was a cruel blow for Johnson and the Nationals.

A New York Yankees' homegrown product who was traded to Montreal in 2003 as part of the Javier Vazquez deal, Johnson had the reputation of being talented but brittle. He had finally stayed healthy in 2006 and had one week left in a season in which he had set career highs in homers, runs scored, RBIs and on-base percentage.

"It was just a shame to see that happen to someone who was having such a good year," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He has been injury-prone his whole career, and for that year he was fine the whole year and then for something like that to happen so close to the end, you know, it is sad."

Johnson also was facing a career-threatening injury months after signing a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension. The Nationals, in just their second season after moving from Montreal to Washington, were trying to establish an identity, and suddenly one of their supposed franchise players had a broken leg.

"We knew we had a risk with a player that's always been hurt, but the [financial] numbers were so good compared to what the market was that the deal made sense," general manager Jim Bowden said. "And sure enough he gets hurt. And sure enough at the end of the day the player wins the first part of the contract. But now if we get Nick to be Nick this year and next year it will balance out and will hopefully end up being a good contract for both of us, which was the intent."

There was no question in Bowden's mind that Johnson would make it back on the field - that he wouldn't shut it down simply because he had a guaranteed deal.

"Nick Johnson is just a winning person and a winning player," Bowden said. "He has character and integrity. He is not the kind of player that is playing because he is playing for money. He plays because he loves it."

While rehabbing last year, Johnson stayed with the team. He couldn't be away from baseball for long.

"I think it would have been a lot tougher if I was at the house and I'd just go to rehab for an hour or two hours and then just go home," Johnson said. "That would have made it worse."

The flip side is that Johnson watched his replacement, Dmitri Young, have a tremendous season, win National League Comeback Player of the Year Award and be rewarded with a contract extension.

But Johnson said he wasn't concerned about being the odd man out.

"I just basically worried about getting healthy," he said. "You can't do anything until you get healthy."

This spring, it was Young who was bothered by injuries, and in early April was placed on the disabled list with a sprained back. And it's Johnson who has been healthy and contributing.

"I love Nick Johnson, Comeback Player of the Year," Bowden said.

After what he has been through the past 19 months, Johnson doesn't have such lofty aspirations.

"I am just happy to run out there," he said, "and have my body feel good."

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