- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

NEW YORK — Nick Johnson’s broken right leg should be healed in time for the start of spring training, members of the Washington Nationals medical staff said yesterday in an encouraging sign for the team’s popular first baseman.

“That’s the hope,” trainer Tim Abraham said. “The doctors are optimistic that it shouldn’t be a problem.”

After a restless night awaiting word of Johnson’s status, the Nationals were relieved to learn that surgery was successful and the 28-year-old should make a full recovery and return to the field in 2007.

Doctors didn’t know the full extent of Johnson’s injury until they were able to operate on him late Saturday night at New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens. Local orthopedist Peter Dzenis and Nationals team doctor Ben Shaffer found Johnson had completely fractured his femur (the thigh bone) about two-thirds of the way down. The break, though, was clean and fairly easy to repair.

During a two-hour procedure, doctors inserted a thin, titanium rod inside the bone canal and held it in place with three screws. Johnson won’t need a cast, but he will be walking on crutches for about six weeks, after which he can begin full rehabilitation.

“It was a pretty straightforward procedure,” Shaffer said. “Under X-ray, when we manipulated it, it was just a perfect alignment.”

Team personnel didn’t say so at the time, but there was some initial concern whether Johnson would be able to recover and return to play next season or beyond.

“That was one of the first things I wanted to find out: how long, and will he be ready for spring training?” said right fielder Austin Kearns, who collided with Johnson trying to chase down a pop fly in the eighth inning of Saturday’s loss to the New York Mets. “Everybody seems to be pretty positive about that, so that’s definitely a good thing.”

The play, in which Kearns’ body struck Johnson’s right thigh at full speed, left several Nationals players sick to their stomachs. Kearns, catcher Brian Schneider and others had tears in their eyes as Johnson screamed in pain while paramedics tried to stabilize his leg and hoist him onto a cart.

A large group of players went to the hospital immediately after the game to check on their teammate and were reassured when they saw Johnson in good spirits and joking around.

“That made it easier for us because we could see he was doing OK,” Kearns said.

Johnson still faces a difficult offseason of rehabilitation. Doctors planned to try to get him up on crutches last night, and if all goes well, he could join his teammates on their charter train back to the District following tonight’s series finale with the Mets.

Meanwhile, pitching coach Randy St. Claire missed his second straight game with an ailment that was diagnosed yesterday as pneumonia.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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