- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

If it wasn’t evident before the game when he sat at his locker nervously twisting the handle of his bat, if it wasn’t evident when he jogged in from center field with tears in his eyes as Hall of Famer Don Sutton called him the picture of perseverance, Nick Johnson didn’t waste much time underlining for everyone how much he missed baseball. After hacking uncharacteristically at Tim Hudson’s first two pitches with a runner on third and two out in the first inning, the Washington Nationals first baseman composed himself, took a fastball from Hudson and lashed a single to right field. Only Johnson wasn’t done. He barreled around first base and beat Jeff Francoeur’s throw with a manic slide into second. Johnson lay there for a second, as if to make sure his once-broken leg was in good shape, and got up to a standing ovation with a mischievous smile on his face. Then he repeated the scene on Austin Kearns’ single to right, sliding into home as Francoeur’s throw pulled catcher Brian McCann off home plate. Johnson turned the Nationals’ home opener into his personal comeback party tonight, providing some of the most memorable moments of the night in showing he was fully healed from the broken leg that caused him to miss the entire 2007 season. The first baseman was enjoying the best season of his career when he broke his right leg in a collision with Austin Kearns on Sept. 23, 2006. In his absence, the Nationals signed Dmitri Young, who hit .320 and won NL comeback player of the year honors in 2007 after battling depression and diabetes. But Johnson edged Young for the starting spot at first base in spring training, showing manager Manny Acta his leg was strong enough to play every day and provide a defensive upgrade over Young. The payoff came last night, when he grabbed center stage in a game some people thought he wouldn’t be ready for. I was just trying to get healthy, he said before the game. I had too much on my mind [to think about the opener]. It was too far down the road. Aside from providing a memorable moment, Johnson’s RBI his first since Sept. 19, 2006 showed just how valuable he can be to the Nationals’ lineup. Like the Nationals’ first three hitters, Johnson swung at the first pitch. But he was able to wait for a breaking ball from the right-handed Hudson, jumping on it and pulling it to score Cristian Guzman. And as memorable as tonight was for the first baseman, it’s even more important that he showed he’s ready to be a legitimate middle-of-the-order presence for the Nationals again. When he was home, he didn’t give me any indication he was going to show up to spring training the way he did, manager Manny Acta said before the game. So this is going to be very gratifying, not only for him but for all of us.

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