- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

JUPITER, Fla. — These are happy days for Jose Vidro.

For the first time in nearly three years, his right knee is pain-free. In fact, he says he hasn’t felt this good since 2000, when he was still establishing himself as an everyday player.

So while Vidro’s spring training numbers — he went 1-for-3 yesterday to raise his batting average to .222 — aren’t much to look at, his ever-present smile is.

“I feel great,” he said. “Knock on wood, this is my first spring training that I’ve gone out there and really haven’t had any problems at all.”

That smile wasn’t seen often last year, certainly not after Vidro suffered a season-altering ankle injury May 4. The franchise’s longest-tenured player couldn’t get on the field as Washington surged to first in the National League East.

Vidro did return to play most of the second half of the season but wasn’t up to the challenge physically. He wound up hitting a career-low .275 while struggling to stay in shape.

“Of course, [he was] depressed, disgusted, whatever,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We all want to play this game healthy. When we’re not healthy, we can’t perform as well. And in his case, he was missing out of the lineup. That’s not good.”

The Nationals have been encouraged by what they have seen this spring — Vidro legging out a double in the gap or diving after a hard grounder to his left — and also by the sight of him joking around in the clubhouse or wrestling with batting practice pitcher and longtime friend Jose Martinez.

He’s healthy — physically and mentally.

“He feels better about it,” Robinson said. “He’s healthier and feeling good and playing well and coming along real good in spring training with no setbacks. Yeah, that has a lot to do with [his good mood]. Health is probably the No.1 thing that has something to do with it.”

In the field, Vidro has made some significant strides. He played all nine innings Saturday in Lakeland, Fla., for the first time this spring, then returned to play the next two days. He expects to be in the lineup again tonight when the Nationals play the Cleveland Indians in Viera and might play tomorrow afternoon in Vero Beach against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It’s just a building-up process in spring training to get yourself ready for the season,” he said. “And I think three, four, five days in a row is good.”

The process has been a little slower at the plate, where Vidro has yet to find his old All-Star form consistently. But after a few pointers from Robinson on Sunday, he hit a double to left-center — the kind of opposite-field hit Vidro has made his career on.

“That’s when I know I’m in, when I’m hitting line drives to left field,” he said.

For Vidro, these small strides are the culmination of six months of offseason preparation.

On the advice of doctors, he elected not to have another knee surgery last fall, choosing instead to go through a rigorous rehabilitation program to get back in shape.

Then, despite the pleas of his Puerto Rican countrymen to play in the World Baseball Classic, Vidro chose to remain in Florida. He wanted to represent his country, but his professional career was more important.

It looks like he made the right choice, so far at least.

Now Vidro is talking about playing in 162 games. And the Nationals are feeling better about their insistence on moving Alfonso Soriano to left field because of Vidro’s presence at second base.

No wonder Vidro can’t stop smiling.

“All those decisions I made in the offseason are paying off right now,” he said. “I feel great. Like I told Frank, when I get up in the morning, I feel even better. I’m very happy because of that. Obviously, we’ve got about a week left before Opening Day. Hopefully this is going to be my year, man.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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