- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Nick Johnson emerged slowly from the dugout tunnel and cautiously climbed the stairs one at a time before standing on the warning track and greeting a group of reporters.

In those few seconds, this much became clear: Johnson is nowhere close to being able to play first base for the Washington Nationals. And there’s no telling when he will.

“I can’t even jog right now,” he said.

That simple line perhaps best sums up the current state of Johnson’s right leg, which was broken in a violent collision with teammate Austin Kearns on Sept. 23. In the nearly five months since that Sunday afternoon at New York’s Shea Stadium, Johnson has undergone three surgical procedures, had a titanium rod and screws placed along his broken right femur, gone through an exhaustive rehabilitation program, gained 15 pounds because of the inactivity and begun the process of learning how to walk again.

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What he hasn’t done is anything related to baseball. He hasn’t swung a bat other than fiddling around a little to see how it feels. He hasn’t taken grounders, and he certainly hasn’t run the bases or attempted to slide.

“Everything’s so weak in my right leg,” he said. “My hip. My quad. Everything.”

Asked for the best-case scenario for his return to the major leagues, Johnson shrugged and suggested June.

“But I won’t know until I start hitting, running, getting on the field,” he said. “It’s hard to make a prediction now.”

The Nationals refuse to, at least until team doctor Ben Shaffer has a chance to look at Johnson’s latest X-rays Monday and probably not until he’s back on the field and free of pain.

“Right now, there’s not enough info or data to put a timetable on it,” general manager Jim Bowden said.

At the time of the injury, Shaffer was optimistic Johnson would be healed in time for the start of spring training. But the player was slow to recover and twice needed follow-up surgery, first to repair scar tissue and later to remove the screws. He got off crutches about two months ago and began walking again but concedes even now he can’t stay on his feet for long before he has to sit down because his leg is sore.

Obviously, those initial predictions for a full and speedy recovery won’t come true.

“I think everyone in this room is aware that people were being a little over-optimistic when they were talking about him being ready for spring training and all of that,” said manager Manny Acta, who witnessed the play as the Mets’ third base coach. “I know the science has advanced a lot in the medical field, but [it was a] pretty bad injury.”

Johnson waited a few months before watching a replay of the collision but says he now checks it out “here and there.

“I just wanted to see it,” he added. “I looked at it a couple more times and just watched the leg flop.”

Kearns doesn’t share Johnson’s curiosity.

“I haven’t seen it,” he said. “I didn’t really care to. … Just being out there when it happened was enough. I try not to think about it.”

Johnson, though, always has had a twisted sense of humor, and he hasn’t lost it since the last time he donned a uniform. Asked yesterday whether he’s particularly worried about any part of getting back on the field, he responded with a laugh and then cited the very type of play he was injured on.

“Probably that ball over my head,” he said. “I might have to peek the first time.”

Of course, Johnson won’t have the option of worrying about that until he resumes baseball activities, and the Nationals are in no rush to make that happen. The club has invested $16.5 million in the 28-year-old over the next three seasons, and they want to make sure he’s around for the duration of the contract.

“We’re not going to jeopardize 2008 and years beyond 2008 just to get Nick Johnson here two or three weeks earlier,” Acta said. “Not at all. Nick is not going to be on the field until he’s 100 percent ready to go, free of any type of risk of injuring himself out there.”

Until Johnson is given a clean bill of health, the Nationals will go with a replacement at first base, selected from among rookie Larry Broadway and veterans Travis Lee, Dmitri Young and Robert Fick. Kearns will take over the cleanup duties. But the club will be keeping a close eye on Johnson every step of the way, hoping to see signs of progress, waiting for the day he can walk up those dugout steps without a limp.

“I just go with what the docs say,” Johnson said. “They see it more than I do. I’d like to be ready now, but that wasn’t going to happen.”

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