- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 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 slider to right field for a single.

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.

“[Francoeur’s] usually the last guy you want to hit it to when there’s going to be a play at the plate,” Kearns said. “Nick’s moving around great. He’s not hesitant at all.”

Johnson turned the Nationals’ home opener into his personal comeback party last night, providing some of the most memorable moments 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.

“There were a lot of emotions with the work I put in, my family being here,” said Johnson, whose wife, daughter, mother, stepfather and in-laws were in attendance.

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.

He is one of the team’s most patient hitters, and whatever anxiety he showed by swinging at the first two pitches, he countered with the way he fought off Hudson’s slider for a hit.

“It was two strikes. I was just trying to protect [the plate],” Johnson said. “Cutter, sinker, slider, change-up, he’s got them all. You just try to get a pitch and not miss it.”

Johnson came through, setting up the only runs the Nationals got until Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off homer.

And in the process, he proved to himself, his teammates and anyone else watching that he’s ready to be counted on again.

“He comes in a huge RBI situation, two outs, a man on third,” Acta said. “He comes up with a single. That was just great. And to stretch it into a double, a guy who’s coming back from a broken leg, that was special.”

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