- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

So far first baseman Nick Johnson has escaped the wave of injuries that has reduced the Washington Nationals’ offense from potent to popgun — and it’s easy to imagine manager Frank Robinson giving thanks.

After 47 games, Johnson has All-Star numbers. His .422 on-base percentage is sixth best in the National League, and he leads the Nationals in four other categories: batting average (.311), hits (52), walks (27), and games (46). His seven home runs are second on the club behind Jose Guillen’s 10, and he’s tied with Vinny Castilla for second in RBI with 25, two behind Guillen. He also had a 16-game hitting streak.

What’s his secret? Said Johnson simply: “I’m trying to put good swings on good pitches and stay in the strike zone.”

Unfortunately, Johnson probably will be ignored in All-Star voting, with the likes of Derrek Lee, Albert Pujols, Sean Casey and Carlos Delgado causing a high-powered National League traffic jam at first. But Johnson, off to the best start in his five-year major league career, has been a steadying force in a grievously decimated lineup.

Center fielder Brad Wilkerson (forearm), Guillen (ribs), Castilla (knee) and catcher Brian Schneider (knee) are banged up but playing. Second baseman Jose Vidro (ankle), first baseman Wil Cordero (knee) and outfielders Jeffrey Hammonds (hamstring) and Terrmel Sledge (hamstring) are on the disabled list.

“Nick is off to a great start,” said utility infielder Jamey Carroll, whose locker is next to Johnson’s at RFK Stadium. “That’s the guy I played against all through the minor leagues, and it just goes to show you if you keep him healthy, great things are going to happen. He’s been doing it at the plate and in the field. That’s the guy we need in the middle of the lineup.”

Even if he has to check the lineup card to find out exactly where. Johnson has batted everywhere from second to seventh in the order. Said Robinson: “We’ve moved him around a little bit, but he’s been very productive everywhere.”

It’s ironic, if perhaps fitting, that Johnson has escaped injury this season. The nephew of former Philadelphia Phillies manager and ESPN baseball analyst Larry Bowa has battled injuries most of his career.

Last season Johnson played in just 73 games for Montreal because of a lumbar strain and a right cheekbone broken by Royce Clayton’s one-hop smash Aug. 20.

In 2003 with the New York Yankees, the 6-foot-3, 224-pounder posted the best numbers of his career (.284, 14 home runs, 47 RBI) but played in just 96 games because of a stress fracture in his right hand. And his rookie season of 2002 with the Yankees was shortened by 24 games because of a bone bruise on his left wrist.

Johnson was rated as the Yankees No. 1 prospect by Baseball America in 2000, but missed that entire season with a strained muscle in his right hand suffered during a spring training game.

“I’m happy I’m healthy and out there playing every day,” Johnson said. “If you’re not healthy, you can’t contribute. Once you get out there, just have fun and play ball.”

When on the field, Johnson has always been a fine defensive player. This season he has committed just two errors in 419 chances and leads the Nationals with a .995 fielding percentage.

Because of Johnson’s injury history, Robinson doesn’t want to play him every game but has no other options with Cordero on the DL. Once Cordero is activated, Johnson might get a day off now and then.

Johnson gave the Nationals a scare in an April 26 game against the Phillies when he fouled a pitch off the back of his left knee. Johnson missed the next game, with Wilkerson switching to first base. But after a travel day, Johnson was back in the lineup for the subsequent game.

And he’ll stay there for the rest of the summer — provided the injury jinx doesn’t rap on his door once more.

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