VIERA, Fla. -- Whether sauntering around the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, taking hacks in the batting cage or squatting behind the plate to receive pitches, Wilson Ramos shows no visible signs of the gruesome right knee injury that befell him nine months ago.
Indeed, as Nationals pitchers and catchers report for spring training, Ramos says there's only one hurdle left to cross before he'll know he's 100 percent back from a torn ACL and MCL: Blocking balls in the dirt, the exact type of play that led to his injury last season.
"Yeah, that's the last thing I will do," he said, adding he hopes to add that drill to his repertoire in the next day or two. "But I feel confident about the knee. I feel like I will do it soon."
Ramos admits he's "a little bit scared" to attempt to block a pitch in the dirt. Not because he doesn't think he can do it, but because the image of the last time he tried to perform that task -- during the Nationals' May 12 game in Cincinnati -- remains fresh in his mind. Trying to chase after a ball that got away from him, his right leg gave out and he crumpled to the ground in agony.
It's been a long road back since. Ramos had to wait for the swelling in the knee to subside before he could have surgery to reconstruct the ACL and MCL. He was moving around much better at season's end but made significant progress over the winter and slowly began to incorporate more baseball activities into his rehab program.
Ramos now is hitting, squatting and running with no problems. He'll still need to build up stamina and get himself back into full "baseball shape," but he doesn't expect to have any significant limitations this spring and is optimistic he'll be ready for Opening Day.
"My knee feels good, feels strong," he said. "I'm running good, I'm squatting good. But I need to do everything slowly."
The Nationals won't push Ramos too far too fast, and he's OK with that course of action. With veteran Kurt Suzuki also on the roster, the club plans to slowly work Ramos back into the daily lineup, perhaps only starting a couple times a week in April before ultimately reassuming a more-regular role.
That's fine with Ramos, who is less concerned how much he plays in April than making sure he can play full-time in September and October.
"It was a lot of time I was out of the game, so I want to come back strong," he said. "I don't want to get hurt again. So I will do everything slowly and get my knee strong and try to get 100 percent for playing the full season."
Ramos was off to a solid start last season as the Nationals' No. 1 catcher. He hit .304 with two homers and a .407 on-base percentage over his final 15 games before suffering the injury. He remains, in the eyes of team executives, the club's long-term answer behind the plate.
But the 25-year-old must re-establish himself, not only proving himself healthy but a productive player both offensively and defensively. The Nationals also want to see him condition himself better, and Ramos did his part over the winter, arriving in Viera on Jan. 23 looking trimmer than he did last spring.
Ramos spent most of his winter in Washington, returning to Venezuela only over the Christmas holiday. That was a significant departure from previous offseasons, which he spent entirely in his native country, but was a necessary change both because of his harrowing kidnapping episode last winter and the need to be close to Nationals medical staff while rehabbing his knee.
"I was excited to be there with my family for Christmas and to stay with them for a couple days," he said. "That was exciting for me. But I had to work. I had to be here early, because I had a lot of work to do. I've got a lot of things to do here. I want to be healthy for this full season."
Long-term health remains Ramos' primary objective. If it means he must take things slowly this spring and lose some playing time in exchange for the opportunity to hold a meaningful role down the stretch in a pennant race, he's ready to commit.
"I want to play every day, but if the doctors say take everything slowly, that's what I'm going to do," he said. "I don't want to try to do everything quick and get hurt again. I want to be on the team all year and try to help my team. It was hard for me last year to watch the games on TV, to see all the other guys playing in the playoffs. That was hard for me. I want to be in the playoffs again this year, and I want to be behind the plate."