Thursday, February 28, 2008

JUPITER, Fla. — The ball went spinning off Robert Andino’s bat and headed toward no-man’s land down the right-field line.

Nick Johnson’s baseball instincts told him to chase down the pop-up. But somewhere between the time ball met bat and right fielder Elijah Dukes caught it in foul territory, the unforgettable scene ran through Johnson’s mind.

Hadn’t he been here before?

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s funny, huh? First game.”

Sure enough, in his first organized game of baseball since Sept. 23, 2006, Johnson faced a play that was practically a carbon copy of the one that kept him sidelined the last 18 months.

The only differences? This time, Dukes was the right fielder, not Austin Kearns. And of course, this time Johnson pulled back in plenty of time to let his teammate make the play.

“It was dead-on, maybe it had a little more air under it,” he said. “You gotta go after it, but I sure took a peek [at Dukes]. A long peek.”

Johnson’s return to the field, the most significant development in the Washington Nationals’ exhibition opener against the Florida Marlins last night, otherwise wasn’t noteworthy. In his three innings at first base, he didn’t need to field any balls, only taking three easy throws from infielders on grounders.

Johnson’s night at the plate was even less dramatic. The first pitch he faced from Florida left-hander Scott Olsen — a fastball up and in — caught him on the right arm, an area protected by a plastic guard. After waiting nearly 18 months to take a hack at a major league pitch, Johnson could only shrug his shoulders and trot to first base.

He swung his next time up, coming up late on a fastball from reliever Logan Kensing and tapping a shallow fly ball to center field.

With that, Johnson’s long and difficult journey back was complete. He played three innings in an exhibition game at Roger Dean Stadium before 2,335 fans.

Johnson started getting butterflies Tuesday night and didn’t settle down until after he had been taken out of the game.

“I was flying pretty high today, all day long,” he said. “It was like a World Series game a little bit, that rush of getting back out there.”

Since the moment he collided with Kearns chasing down a shallow fly ball at Shea Stadium and broke his right femur, he has yearned for the simple thrill of crouching at first base and waiting for a pitch to be delivered.

Try as he might last season to return, Johnson couldn’t do it. The titanium rod and screws implanted in his leg the night he suffered the injury caused too much pain in his upper thigh and hip for him to reach for hard grounders, follow through on swings or charge around the bases.

But after having the equipment removed during a follow-up surgical procedure last August, Johnson ran, fielded and threw without pain. And when he arrived at spring training two weeks ago lean and full of vigor, team officials realized he could return to full action.

“He has gotten so much better since the last time we saw him,” manager Manny Acta said. “It seems like it took him forever last year. But since the end of the season, it’s been a very quick recovery.”

Both Johnson and the Nationals are keeping expectations low at this early stage.

“Do I expect him to be the same Nick Johnson that he was two years ago tonight? Of course not,” general manager Jim Bowden said before the game. “I have no expectations until we get to the third week in March. Then the last seven to 10 days of spring training, then we’re going to see where they are baseball-wise. I don’t care if he goes 0-for-60 between now and then. I’m not going to evaluate him until we get there.”

On this night, the sight of Nick Johnson in uniform playing in an actual baseball game was reason enough for the Nationals to smile.

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