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01/30/12 11:27 AM EST

Johnson: 'Now I'm ready to break out'

Third baseman looks to put last year's struggles behind him

HOUSTON -- There's something different about Chris Johnson these days. The way he anxiously grips the baseball bat while sitting at his locker, the way he talks about last year and the lessons learned, and the way he oozes with anticipation about the upcoming season.

Johnson is as focused as he's ever been and appears in the right frame of mind a few weeks away from the start of Spring Training. He discusses things like "getting his head right" and "trying to be the best ballplayer I can be." There are other goals, too, but Johnson isn't allowing his thoughts to get too far ahead of himself.

"I'm just trying to get better every day," he said. "That's my goal. I'm not worried about anything else, except getting better every day. That's why I'm still here."

Johnson, 27, will come into Spring Training like he did last year, battling to win the starting third-base job. He began the 2011 season as the Astros' Opening Day third baseman, though he was the favorite entering camp and didn't have much competition for the job.

Things will be different this time.

After hitting .308 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs in a bang-up half-season in his rookie campaign in 2010, Johnson slumped to .251 with seven homers and 42 RBIs last year, scuffled on defense, and wound up getting sent to the Minor Leagues. Now he finds himself battling for third base with Jimmy Paredes, the 23-year-old switch-hitter who had a promising 2011 debut at the plate.

"That's all I ask for, is an opportunity," Johnson said. "I'm an athlete, so I'm open to competition. That's something I thrive on. We're all on the same team, so we're going to be helping each other. I'm going to help Jimmy as much as I can, and hopefully he has things he knows he can talk to me about. We're all in the same organization, but I'm definitely going in there trying to win a job."

Johnson admits too much got in his head last year. There was a part of him that thought he had it all figured out, and when he began to struggle at the plate, the frustrations began to mount. Self-doubt slowly crept into his head.

"You come in on your high horse after a good rookie year and I didn't have many people behind me [on the depth chart] in Spring Training last year, so I kind of -- I don't want to say relax -- but got comfortable. ... That's one of the things that really bit me last year, was getting comfortable, and I'm not doing that anymore."

With that in mind, Johnson has been working at Minute Maid Park routinely this offseason, in the weight room and on the field with first-base coach Bobby Meacham, who has hit him countless buckets of grounders. You can't work too hard when you're livelihood is at stake.

"It's going to be a battle," Johnson said. "I think it's going to be a battle for a lot of guys on the team, at least that's the way I'm looking at it. I'm going to go in and try to have the best spring I can and try to get better as a player, and whatever happens after that is beyond my control. That's kind of the mindset I'm having right now. I'm going to go in and try to bust my butt and win the job."

For all the ups and downs that Johnson has endured in his brief career, he has learned to take nothing for granted.

"It was my sophomore year, and guys still go through struggles," he said. "Now I'm ready to break out."

Brian McTaggart is reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.