Johnson’s crustiness belies the fact that even as a player with Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles he was among the first in the majors to dabble in computer programs and analyze statistics and keep books on trends. He jumped on board on-base percentage long before the sabermetricians. But when he talks these days it is more as sage, as when he embarked on a lengthy discourse recently about how teenage outfielder Harper has become a better centre fielder by changing his running style.
“Early on his strides were choppy – chop, chop, chop. Like pistons,” Johnson said, fingers tapping. “You see that, you worry about leg injuries. You want to see them glide to the ball. Bryce is starting to do that.”
There’s a lot going on when Johnson manages a game. His team went into the weekend with the second-fewest sacrifice hits in the National League (he abhors small-ball, so bless him again!) but through Thursday the Nationals were also hitting .302 in the pinch, a stunning 60-for-199.
“Never seen a guy get the matchups he gets,” said Knorr, shaking his head. “And his use of the bullpen is remarkable. Honestly, Davey’s so far ahead of the other team that my job most days is to keep him in the here and now.”
Bryce Harper is the all-world, 19-year-old rookie whose 20 home runs through Thursday are just behind Tony Conigliaro (24) for most homers in a season by a teenager. The baseball world knew about him before the season, just as they knew about Stephen Strasburg, the franchise pitcher who was controversially shut down with an innings limit in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery despite the fact that with him the Nationals had what amounted to major-league baseball’s nuclear rotation.
They knew about Jayson Werth, who went on the 15-day and then 60-day disabled list with a fractured arm and was out from May 8 to Aug. 2. They figured that a healthy Harper and a comeback year from Adam LaRoche would restore some balance to a right-hand heavy lineup.
Johnson said in spring training he’d deserve to be fired if the Nationals didn’t win the division. Not make the playoffs; win the division. Johnson replaced Jim Riggleman on June 26, 2011, when the team was, as Werth described it to mlb.com “upside down ... a mess.”
And so baseball in the U.S. capital gets ready for its first postseason since the 1933 Washington Senators of the American League lost a five-game World Series to the New York Giants. That’s some heavy firsts; ’33 for the city, ’81 for the franchise.
The duality of being the Nationals is driven home as the records fall by the wayside, as was the case when Gonzalez went on to become the franchise’s first 21-game winner on Thursday, after earlier becoming the first 20-game winner in D.C. history since Bob Porterfield won 22 games in 1953 and joined Earl Whitehill (1933) as the only D.C.-based left-handers with 20 wins.
He broke the 200-strikeout mark on that day, the first D.C.– based pitcher to do so since Walter Johnson struck out 228 in 1916.
Yes, that Gio Gonzalez: the guy the Oakland Athletics first dangled in the faces of the Toronto Blue Jays at the winter meetings in Dallas last year, only to have the Blue Jays balk, sources say, because the Athletics wanted two of gilt-edged pitching prospects Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Mike Nicolino plus two more players.
The Nationals and Blue Jays were in similar positions; the Blue Jays needed another starter to round out Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero; the Nationals wanted somebody to pitch with Jordan Zimmerman and Strasburg.
After Gonzalez’s 20th win, Johnson smiled as he leaned back and told reporters how pitching coach Steve McCatty came in from the bullpen to tell him that Gonzalez’s pen was not good. “Awful pen, I was told,” Johnson said, chuckling.
“But Palmer was like that. He’d come in and go, ‘Get me a bunch of runs, I got nothing.’ We knew that meant he’d throw a shutout.”
Gonzalez went back to the clubhouse and found his teammates had scattered $20 bills around his chair.
“He has been a great fit for us,” said Desmond, who was drafted in 2004 in the third round while the franchise was still in Montreal and who leads all shortstops in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. “He has some serious passion for the game and for his teammates. And Davey’s perfect for him; Davey lets him go out there and spin it like he knows how.”
This really is the here and the now. Playoff baseball is back in D.C., with a wise old hand leading the way.