- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

NEW YORK — As Nick Johnson walked into Shea Stadium yesterday afternoon, he couldn’t help but glance down the right field line and focus on the spot where his life changed in September.

The injured Washington Nationals first baseman did not, however, feel the need to walk out to the precise location where he collided with teammate Austin Kearns and broke his right leg.

“Nah, I just checked it out, played it through my head a little bit,” he said.

Johnson still remembers every detail from that Saturday afternoon, how he never saw Kearns coming from behind as he tried to track down David Wright’s shallow fly ball, how the two struck violently and how he fell to the ground in agonizing pain.

Johnson also remembers how he was afraid to ask former trainer Tim Abraham how serious the injury was.

“I told Tim, ‘Don’t tell me what it is,’ ” he said. “I just asked him if I needed surgery. I didn’t care what it was. It was so much pain, I just wanted them to take care of it.”

These days, Johnson and his teammates can look back and laugh a little. On a dry-erase board inside the Washington clubhouse yesterday, someone had scribbled out the message: “Hey Kearns, play deep.”

For Kearns, the trip back to Shea Stadium rekindled memories of the play. But unlike in the immediate days that followed, he no longer relives the incident on a regular basis.

“It’s impossible not to know the last time you were here, but it’s not weird,” Kearns said. “I think we’ve all moved forward.”

It helps that Johnson has made significant strides in his rehabilitation over the last month. He only began jogging for the first time in March, but yesterday he ran sprints, jumped rope, lifted weights and played catch. He’s also begun swinging a bat from his knees and says he’s no longer in great pain after performing any of the exercises.

Still, there’s no timetable on Johnson’s return to the major leagues. Once he gets into physical shape, he will have to get back into baseball shape, and that could take some time.

“He’s doing a lot more than I thought he was going to be doing nowadays,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s jogging, and I see him with a glove. … We still have no timetable, but it’s encouraging.”

Cordero turns to slider

Chad Cordero didn’t make his first save of the season look easy Thursday night, but he may have turned an important corner in the process.

Cordero, who loaded the bases against the Atlanta Braves while clinging to a two-run lead, managed to strike out Scott Thorman to end the game and preserve the win. His last pitch, which came on a full count, was a slider, something he threw far more than usual.

Scouting reports have begun to note Cordero relies primarily on his fastball to get ahead in the count. The Braves, in particular, know this and in previous encounters were aggressive in going after the closer’s first pitch.

So Cordero, with the help of catcher Brian Schneider and pitching coach Randy St. Claire, decided to start using his slider and changeup more regularly, a decision that paid off. He estimates that he threw only six fastballs in a 33-pitch inning.

“My slider was working. My changeup was working,” he said. “I did exactly what I wanted to do.”

Acta said he thinks Cordero will benefit from this new look over the long haul.

“He’s going to do it more now because I think the league has already been getting ready to swing early on him,” the manager said. “And he, being the good pitcher he is, is going to adjust.”

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