KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Kelly Johnson is a lot more relaxed this spring.
The Atlanta Braves second baseman doesn’t have to worry about proving he’s ready to start in the big leagues. Or that he’s healthy. Or that he can adapt to a new position.
All those were checked off last season.
"It certainly take a little stress off you," Johnson conceded, sitting at his locker after a recent workout. "It’s just nice to work your way into it and kind of enjoy it a little more."
Johnson couldn’t enjoy anything last spring. The Braves were counting on him to join the lineup, but there were no guarantees since he had only played 87 major league games to that point. Also, he had missed an entire season because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, the sort of procedure normally reserved for pitchers.
Oh, yeah, he was trying to learn a new position as well. He started out in the minors as a shortstop, came up to the majors as an outfielder, but had not played second base since his freshman year ... of high school.
"I felt like I was competing with 19 other guys," Johnson remembered. "Then, on top of that, you’re trying to prove to not only everybody else, but yourself, that you can still play even though you missed a year. Then you throw in switching positions. It was a little different."
Johnson can tone it down a bit, knowing his position is secure after a solid first full year in the big leagues. He batted .276 with 16 homers, 68 RBIs and nine stolen bases, spending most of the season in the leadoff role. He did lead the team with 14 errors, but that wasn’t too bad considering he had no professional experience at second base.
"There’s more room for mistakes when you switch positions and you’re going to the minor leagues," Johnson said. "But when you’re asked to switch positions and step right in to the big leagues and make sure you’re making all the outs, making all the plays, well ..."
His voice trails off.
"When you’re playing behind guys like John Smoltz and Tim Hudson," Johnson said, "they’re pitching for those kind of balls. You need to make those plays. It’s difficult."
Johnson decided the best way to cope was by working harder than anyone else.
While other guys were still getting dressed in the clubhouse, he was already on the field taking extra grounders. He set an impossible standard for himself, believing he failed unless he caught everything hit his way.
"I didn’t want to make mistakes," he said. "I was scared there for a while. I never felt that comfortable until the season got under way."
Johnson helped himself immensely by hitting .326 the first month of the year. Getting off to a good start offensively gave him more confidence in the field.
"It took me a couple of weeks before I started building some momentum offensively," he said. "Once I got some confidence there, it carried over to the defense. When you start feeling a lot more comfortable, you start feeling like, "Yeah, I belong. Yeah, I can do this."’
The Braves certainly have no doubts about Johnson doing the job.
"He played great last year," manager Bobby Cox said. "I thought he got a little tired toward the end. But he had a good, solid year."
Indeed, Johnson was thoroughly exhausted by the time the season was done. He batted only .200 with one homer and five RBIs over the final month, bringing down his numbers considerably.
Then again, his fade was perfectly understandable.
"That was my first full big league season," he said. "There’s an extra 20 or 30 games (compared to the minors). Anybody would be lying if they said they didn’t get tired during their first full season."
Especially when you’re going all that extra work.
"I made it grueling because I was doing so much," Johnson said. "That’s just the way it goes. Circumstances dictated that I needed to put in a lot of extra time, a lot of extra effort, during the spring and then during the season. I’d like to think it paid off."
Now, he can relax a bit.