- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

There still are myriad pregame hitting and fielding sessions and then a rehabilitation assignment in Nick Johnson’s future, but the Washington Nationals first baseman took a step forward yesterday in his recovery from a broken leg.

Four hours before the Nationals played the San Diego Padres at RFK Stadium, Johnson took batting practice outdoors for the first time this season. With manager Manny Acta pitching and several teammates watching, Johnson took 50 swings.

“It felt good to get out there and take some swings out on the field and pain-wise, it wasn’t too bad compared to ground balls, where I feel it the most,” Johnson said.

Johnson hasn’t played since Sept. 23 when he sustained a fractured right femur in a collision with right fielder Austin Kearns.

“It’s a significant step because he was able to swing and not feel any pain,” Acta said. “It makes everybody happy to see him do that.”

Said interim hitting coach Lenny Harris: “What was coming off his bat was unbelievable for a guy who has been out for so long.”

Johnson said he didn’t have a specific goal for the session.

“The first time out, it was about just swinging,” he said. “I wanted to get the ball to travel, but it was tough because I was catching everything out front.”

During the next session, Harris expects to see more lower-body movement from Johnson.

“You look for more movement — sometimes he tried to let it go too fast because his mind is telling him to do something, but his leg is saying, ‘Not yet, not yet,’ ” Harris said. “His mind-set and his swing are right on target.”

Johnson said taking ground balls still produces discomfort but added he will fight through the soreness.

“I’m going to play as long as I can do the things I need to at first base,” he said.

Rauch bounces back

Before tossing a scoreless eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, reliever Jon Rauch hadn’t pitched in a week because of a blister on the bottom of his foot, pitching coach Randy St. Claire said.

Rauch had allowed 10 hits and six runs in his last four appearances. With the Nationals leading the Dodgers 6-4, Rauch yielded a two-out double but then struck out Russell Martin with a 91-mph fastball.

“It was good for him to get out there,” St. Claire said. “The big thing was to make sure his foot was OK. We had to give him that time off, and having a good inning was a little bit of a pick-me-up for him.

“He had been down a little because he has been struggling. It was good for his confidence and to get his mind back on track.”

Ayala starts rehab stint

Nationals reliever Luis Ayala (right elbow) made his first rehab appearance last night for Class A Potomac. He pitched two-thirds of an inning, allowing one hit and one walk while striking out one.

Ayala has been out since March 2006 when he made three appearances for Mexico during the World Baseball Classic. In three major league seasons, Ayala is 24-22 with a 2.75 earned run average.

MASN adds Baylor

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network yesterday added former major league player and manager Don Baylor to the crew of its Nats Xtra pregame and post-game shows. Baylor is expected to work on days when co-host Ray Knight is filling in as an in-game analyst. Baylor played for 19 seasons for six teams and later served as manager of the Colorado Rockies and Chicago Cubs.

Staff writer Tim Lemke contributed to this article.

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