- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Pitchers and catchers took the field yesterday for the Washington Nationals’ first spring training workout at Carl Barger Complex, but the progress of a first baseman seemed to take precedence.

Nearly every move Nick Johnson made — walking, running, hitting, fielding — was under scrutiny by Nationals brass. The attention is understandable: Johnson hasn’t played in a major league game in 18 months.

All parties, however, were pleasantly surprised. Johnson moved well fielding balls at first base and showed no ill effects of the broken right leg he suffered in a collision with teammate Austin Kearns in a Sept. 23, 2006, game at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets.

Johnson clearly was in better condition yesterday than he was during awkward workouts at RFK Stadium in September, when he attempted a comeback but was shut down because he simply wasn’t ready.

“I am extremely pleased,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “There were absolutely no restrictions in his leg as he went through the strike zone at the plate. We never saw that last year. It was a very encouraging way to start spring training for us.”

Said manager Manny Acta: “That was refreshing because the last image I had of him last year in D.C., taking ground balls and swinging the bat, was a totally different image than what I saw today. I am even looking at him when he is not doing activity to see if I can see any favoring or any limp, and he looks normal. He looks good. Now we will have to see how he bounces back and how he can take the everyday grinding of spring training and bring him up to speed with swinging and seeing pitches.”

Johnson, who has lost weight and appears to be in terrific shape, worked hard to be ready for yesterday, the first day he could show the team how far back he has come.

“The last time they saw me, it wasn’t too good, hobbling around,” Johnson said. “I have come a long way from that. I feel good. No real big worries. Everything feels good. The ground balls were fine. Body-wise, fine. Swing, work to do.”

Johnson, 29, is in the second year of a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension. He has a history of injuries but has been a productive, all-around hitter when healthy.

In 2006, Johnson batted .290 with 100 runs scored, 46 doubles, 23 home runs, 77 RBI and an on-base percentage of .428 in 147 games. He will be battling last year’s starting first baseman, Dmitri Young, for that job this spring. If both players are healthy and productive, one likely would be traded.

Lopez in for fight

Felipe Lopez had a dismal 2007, batting just .245. He was benched by Acta in September and was criticized for not hustling.

As a result, Acta made it clear that as of today Cristian Guzman will start at shortstop and Ronnie Belliard at second base. Lopez will have to win a starting job if all three players remain healthy.

Lopez reported to camp yesterday, three days before position players are required to report, and said he is ready to compete for a starting job, whether it be second base or shortstop.

“I know what I have to do and I know what I have to be, so I really don’t care what anybody says,” Lopez said. “If I am here to win a position, it’s not a big deal to me because I’ve been there, done that, and I’m not afraid of it. I’m ready to play.”

What may have affected Lopez’s play last year was some off-the-field business the player chose not to reveal, even to his manager.

“I actually don’t know what the deal was, but by the end of the season last year he was pretty much over whatever it was,” Acta said. “I talked to him yesterday. He has the right attitude. He understands the situation.”

Visa seven

Humberto Cota showed up in Viera yesterday, reducing the number of international players not allowed to leave their countries to report to spring training because of visa issues to seven.

Catcher Jesus Flores and pitchers Luis Ayala, Eude Brito, Jesus Colome, Katsuhiko Maekawa, Arnie Munoz and Ismael Ramirez have been unable to report, but negotiations are under way, according to Acta.

“We are making progress on the visa situation,” Acta said. “I think it is going to be resolved quicker than we thought. We are getting some help from higher places.”

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