The Washington Times - February 26, 2013, 09:18AM

VIERA, Fla. — When Wilson Ramos arrived at spring training a few weeks ago, he said that he felt his surgically-repaired right knee was about 80 percent healthy. He was still afraid of what might happen when he blocked balls, his knee still tired somewhat easily when he caught a bullpen session.

Just more than two weeks later, the Washington Nationals’ catcher happily reports that he feels the health of his knee is now up to 95 percent. He is hitting, catching, blocking and doing every drill the Nationals’ coaches can throw at him. A few days ago, Ramos said, he blocked 35 balls during a drill and he felt great when it was over. His fear over what would happen when he put his right knee in the ground had dissipated.

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Now there is just one remaining hurdle: sliding.

The Nationals’ doctors won’t clear Ramos to play in games, even as a designated hitter, until he can be cleared to slide. For his whole life, Ramos has tucked his right knee under his left leg when he’s gone to slide into bases. Now the plan is to try to teach him to tuck his left and keep the right leg straight. Either way, he planned to give it a shot on Tuesday while the Nationals were playing the Braves in Orlando.

“It’s more mental,” Ramos said Tuesday morning, sitting inside his locker in the Nationals’ clubhouse and barely able to keep the smile from his face as he ticks off all the progress he’s made. “I was scared to block, but after blocking I felt great. Now I’m scared for sliding.”

Ramos’ implication was that as soon as he does it, he expects that fear to fade away as well.

Unfortunately for Ramos, his plans to attempt to slide on Tuesday were news to manager Davey Johnson, who said trainer Lee Kuntz told him doctors may not clear him to do that until March 6 when Nationals medical director Wiemi Douoguih returns to Viera. 

The 25-year-old catcher recently got his right knee, in which he had the anterior cruciate ligament as well as the meniscus repaired last summer, measured. The doctors measure it to get an idea of how much of his muscle has come back since atrophying during his inactivity. While his left knee is still visibly larger than the right, Ramos said the measurements weren’t all that far apart, another good sign for his progress.

But otherwise, Ramos feels he could be ready to play in games as soon as possible.

“I’ve said he’s game ready for the last week, but what do I know,” Johnson said. “But there’s no major hurry as far as I’m concerned, except that he missed all of last year, didn’t play winter ball, I wanted to get him swinging the bat a little bit.”

Ramos has been extremely pleased with his work in the batting cage — a sentiment echoed by hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who sees no hesitation with Ramos and little indication of the time missed — and feels more power in his swing now due to all the upper body work he did when he was unable to workout his legs.

From July to December Ramos focused on working out his upper body. That was the first time in his life he’d ever been so focused on that part of his body. Going from the usual twice-per-week lifting session to the intense work he did during rehab, he feels, has helped significantly.

“I feel more power now,” he said. “My bat, it feels a little lighter.”

“He’s swinging the heck out of the bat, I like his stroke,” Johnson said. “He’s very comfortable in his own skin so I’d rather be on the cautious side with him before he gets in ballgames. He feels like he’s close but if we get the doctors on the same page we’ll be let him to go run out there.”

Ramos wants to play now, but of course he knows that it’s best for him to wait. The Nationals think they will be able to get him into games as a full participant by mid-March, and they hope to use him as a designated hitter earlier. “I have to wait,” he admits. “I don’t want to rush it and miss another season.”

When it does happen, when Ramos does stand behind the plate — spring training game or not — he knows it will be a special moment.

“I would be excited for that,” Ramos said. “I will be very happy to be in those white lines. I’m waiting for that moment. I will be 100 percent happy for that.”