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Healthy hips a relief for Seattle's Johnson

Healthy hips a relief for Seattle's Johnson

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Rob Johnson spends his early mornings in a pool, not a laboratory. He gains his energy off a plate, not out of a socket. He makes up part of a battery, but does not run on a battery.

Johnson isn't quite a bionic catcher, but it's close.

Seattle's 27-year-old definitely is the Majors' only catcher coming off three major surgeries -- four, if you include the extraction of Kenji Johjima from his path.

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"Yes, this season could be really big for me," said Johnson, who thus far has logged 292 big league at-bats in the six years since the Mariners made him their fourth-round choice in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. "I've got my normal mobility back, and that could lead to great things. But you still need to get on the field and take care of business."

Johnson is taking care of it gradually in the Mariners' camp, less than four months removed from the last of his surgical trifecta: operations on a torn labrum in both hips and on a broken right wrist.

"I'm doing pretty much everything," Johnson said, managing to make the remarkable sound routine, "only the amount is lower. Like I might catch two bullpens one day and maybe none at all the next day, while the others are catching two, three every day hoping to get their legs in shape.

"But they're going to hold me back for comfort reasons. No sense taking a chance on blowing everything out in February when we still got five weeks left."

Although he figures to be kept on the slow track when exhibition play begins next week, Johnson has no doubt he will be good to go for Opening Day. That would punctuate with an exclamation point an extraordinary achievement -- three operations without missing a game, inasmuch as Johnson had caught on 2009's closing day.

As he revs up his rehab, Johnson can look around and find plenty of encouraging inspiration -- up to a point. Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley and Mike Lowell are all high-profile players who have returned strong from recent hip surgeries.

"But none of them are catchers," Johnson said. "And they had only one hip operated . They could rely on their good side. I had both done, both sides were screwed up.

"To see them go out and perform gave me a really good feeling but, unfortunately, you can't compare it to being 100 percent behind the plate. So I knew my time would be a little more limited at the beginning."

The Mariners showed great faith in Johnson's recuperative powers, not thrown into panic mode by what had to be an unsettling third week of October: Days after Johnson began running his medical gauntlet with his right hip surgery by Vail, Colo., specialist Dr. Marc Philippon, Johjima announced his decision to opt out of the final two seasons of his Seattle contract and remain in his native Japan.

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General manager Jack Zduriencik reacted by inviting two veteran non-roster catchers into camp, but Josh Bard and Eliezer Alfonzo are clearly on hand only as emergency fallbacks.

The job is Johnson's to keep away from rookie Adam Moore.

In a significant sense, he had already taken it away from Johjima. The decision to walk out on $16 million can't be easy, and Johjima blindsided and puzzled everyone. Family separation had to be a factor for the 34-year-old, but likely so was Johnson's emergence as the preferred receiver of the top-of-the-rotation Mariners pitchers, most notably Felix Hernandez.

"You know, I haven't thought about it that much," Johnson said. "I'm sure a lot of [Johjima's decision] did have to do with playing time. We were pretty close, we were friends and he did a good job here. Let's just leave it at that."

On the surface, Johnson and Johjima essentially had split the job last season -- 80 and 70 games, respectively. But Johnson caught each of Hernandez's last 25 starts (the Cy Young Award runnerup went 15-2 in them) and also became the preferred plate pal of Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn.

"They definitely had a role in having me behind the plate," Johnson said. "[Manager Don] Wakamatsu, too -- he talked to me all [last] spring about little things and the importance of continuing to learn.

"Having success with those guys definitely helped, because whatever you do behind the plate, shaking hands after the game is the most positive thing for a catcher. That's the No. 1 goal."

In retrospect, it is impossible to make a call on which was more astonishing: the fact Johnson kept squatting behind the plate with two messed-up hips or the success he had there.

With him as the starting catcher, Seattle went 46-29 with Mariners pitchers combining for an ERA of 3.22, which led all Major League receivers (and was more than a full run below the Major League average of 4.32).

An MRI taken immediately after the season only confirmed what Johnson had felt, and heard, for months.

"I'd been telling [trainer] Rick Griffin, 'Man, there's something going on in my hips.' I had a pretty good feeling something was wrong," Johnson said. "All of a sudden, I couldn't move normally. Things in there were catching and popping."

The confirming diagnosis offered relief -- at last, he had answers and solutions for the discomfort -- but also concern. At least, Johnson's angst was eased by the knowledge he would be under care of the same hip surgeon who had fixed A-Rod.

"Still, anytime you go under the knife, there is anxiety," Johnson said. "You always have in the back of your mind that something could go wrong, or they find something worse that it said on the MRI. But I went into it really at peace with it, with an open mind."

And he came out of all of it with smoother joints that no longer make strange sounds, which should allow Johnson to make some noise.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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