CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

{"content":["opening_day" ] }

Johnson makes presence felt in return

Johnson makes presence felt in return

WASHINGTON -- Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson is a low-key person. When he talks to the media, for example, his voice is low and he usually gives three- or four-word answers.

However, one should believe that Johnson was on a high on Sunday night in the Nationals' 3-2 victory over the Braves. It was Johnson's first game since he broke his right leg on Sept. 23, 2006, in a collision with outfielder Austin Kearns at Shea Stadium.

With his mother, wife and daughter watching in the stands, Johnson acknowledged he was a little emotional when he was introduced before the game.

"When I was out there in center field, it was pretty cool," Johnson said. "It was just a lot of emotions going through my head -- all the work I put in, my family being here to see me go out there for the first time, it was great."

Johnson made his presence felt right away in the first inning against right-hander Tim Hudson. With Cristian Guzman on third, Johnson blooped a double over the head of Braves first baseman Mark Teixeira, scoring Guzman. It was Johnson's first hit since Sept. 19, 2006, against the Braves.

Kearns followed with a single to score Johnson.

"It was great. It was pretty cool," Johnson said. "There was a lot of fun out there. Great time."

Even Kearns got emotional seeing Johnson run the way he did. It became evident that Johnson's leg problems are a thing of the past when he motored home from second in front of Jeff Francoeur's throw to the plate.

"It looked like he didn't miss a beat," Kearns said. "He had the slide and the little tumble. He was in midseason form. Nick is not hesitant at all. He is feeling good. That's all a big plus."

Johnson, 29, missed all of last season while rehabbing his leg, and it was frustrating at times. Originally told that he would be ready for 2007 Spring Training, Johnson was still noticeably limping when February rolled around, and he was unable to participate in fielding practice until June, when he noticed he still wasn't right. He had problems backhanding the ball to his left and hitting the ball to left field.

Then, knee and hip problems surfaced. It was obvious by late August that Johnson would not be back before the season closed. Johnson ended up having surgery to remove the rod from his right hip.

After more rehab, Johnson started to feel like himself again. He can once again backhand the ball to his left, and he can hit the ball all over the place.

Asked if he thought he would ever play baseball again, Johnson said, "There were so many ups and downs, so when they got the rod out and started rehabbing and all that stuff, my legs got stronger and I was able to backhand the ball. There was no pain. We just built it from there."

Johnson reported to Spring Training this year in the best shape of his life. Gone was the belly that people saw during all of '07. He was Nick the Stick again, but he had to fight to get his starting job back.

Dmitri Young was the incumbent first baseman, and rightfully so. Last year, Young was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year after hitting .320 with 13 home runs and 74 RBIs.

At first, it looked like it was Young's position to lose, and Johnson said he would not accept a role on the bench and would consider a trade. As it turned out, Johnson outplayed Young in every area except for hitting. This past Saturday, manager Manny Acta announced that Johnson would be the starting first baseman.

Acta said that Johnson won the job because he is back to being the player he was in 2006, when he had his best season. That year, Johnson hit .290 with 23 home runs and a .428 on-base percentage before breaking his leg.

"We feel that Nick Johnson is back to where he was years ago," Acta said. "We saw it in camp, and we went with it."

Johnson's impact will be felt more on the defensive end. He is an elite fielder, so errors around the infield are expected to go down significantly.

"He is a defensive upgrade," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who had 23 errors last year. "No offense to Dmitri, but I think he will tell you the same thing. Dmitri tries his hardest. We all love Dmitri. A lot of errors last year were my fault, too. So you can't blame it all on the first baseman."

Johnson hopes to avoid the injury bug for the first time since 1997, when he was a Yankees prospect. Johnson believes he has a way to stay healthy.

"I have to go stretch," he said. "My body is tight. The [trainers] stretch me every day, twice a day, just to get loose. That's one thing I have to take care of."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }