VIERA, Fla. (AP) -There was Nick Johnson, looking pretty much like Nick Johnson: red socks pulled nearly to his knees, scruff on his face, two-tone bat in his hands spraying liners this way and that.
No limp. No limitations. No sign that he last played a baseball game in 2006.
``It's nice to be able to come in and feel good and hang out with the fellas and practice,'' Johnson said Sunday, ``and be a normal guy.''
And so it was that the true star of the first day of spring training workouts for Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers was neither a pitcher nor a catcher. Instead, it was Johnson, who missed all of last season while recovering from a broken right leg.
Even though Washington's first full-squad workout isn't until Friday, Johnson wanted badly to be out there earlier. Not only to begin the process of proving to himself and his team that his body feels good, but also to be able, finally, to take to the field with other players.
He put in some glovework at first base Sunday, then took batting practice hacks under the watchful eyes of manager Manny Acta, general manager Jim Bowden and assistant GM Bob Boone. Needless to say, all - including Johnson himself - were thrilled to see his progress.
``What a great way to start spring training,'' Bowden said. ``On Day 1, he comes out and swings and shows he's going to be potentially 100 percent by opening day. It was a very surprising day for me.''
``Refreshing,'' Acta called it.
Oh, sure, there is plenty to be done. Johnson still hasn't tried sliding, for example. Heck, he wasn't running the bases at all Sunday.
And that sweet left-handed swing of his - the one that prompted Acta to call Johnson ``the most productive hitter we had here'' in 2006 - will take time to get up to speed.
``But that's the fun part,'' Johnson said. ``Getting that back.''
Long ago labeled ``injury-prone,'' Johnson was wrapping up a breakthrough season in 2006, with career highs of .290 batting average, 46 doubles, 23 homers, 77 RBIs, 110 walks, 500 at-bats. On Sept. 23, in a game against the New York Mets, he collided with right fielder Austin Kearns as they chased a popup.
The violent impact broke Johnson's femur. He threw off his cap and dropped face-down on the outfield grass.
``When I was laying there, I just didn't want to look at it,'' he says now.
ews were inserted in his leg during a two-hour operation that night. At the time, the Nationals issued a statement from a team doctor saying Johnson was expected to be ready for spring training in 2007. But then, after operations to remove the screws and scar tissue, his return date kept getting pushed back and pushed back.
Predictions are being tempered this time, although Johnson is sure he can be ready for the regular season. How he fares in the spring could determine his future with the team. Acta has made clear that Dmitri Young, who hit .320 as last season's starting first baseman, enters camp as the incumbent.
``I am even looking at him when he's not doing activity, to see if I can see any favoring or any limp, or anything, and he looks normal. He looks good,'' Acta said. ``So now we're going to have to see how he bounces back and how he can take the everyday grinding.''
And how did Johnson look Sunday?
``I'm very encouraged,'' Acta said.
As he surveyed the practice fields, there were certainly other things that would have made the manager feel that way.
Most importantly: Two starters coming off arm surgery, Shawn Hill and John Patterson, threw smoothly, Hill in a bullpen session and Patterson in a long-toss session. If healthy, both right-handers figure to be at the front of the Nationals' rotation.
n last spring, when Patterson came in as the only pitcher with a spot in the rotation. Back in February 2007, it was anyone's guess who would earn a job, with about a dozen guys in the mix.
``We're in a better situation,'' right-hander Tim Redding said. ``We've got a solid group of guys that we can count on to go out there and perform. Going into last year, we had a lot of openings and a lot of question marks.''
As for Johnson, the question marks have lingered for months, particularly since Bowden and Acta last observed him, at RFK Stadium in September.
By all accounts, this was a different player Sunday.
``The last time they saw me,'' Johnson noted, ``I was hobbling.''
Acta's take? ``A totally different image.''
Bowden's? ``Night and day.''
Now Johnson will do what he can to show that he is, once again, whole. Fielding. Hitting. Eventually, running and sliding.
And Acta and Bowden will be watching.
``He's not going to come out and automatically be Nick Johnson. It takes a while. It will probably be March 15 or 16 before we see 'Nick' Nick,''' Bowden said. ``As long as his body parts can move, and his hand-eye can move, and his leg doesn't drag, and he's not tentative, then the rest will come.
``But this was a big day for us.''

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