November 13, 2019

Davey Johnson’s thoughts about the Nats, this season, and his career

Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson will be managing his final game Sunday when the Nats face the Arizona Diamondbacks. With that game, Johnson could very well be closing the book on a 50-year career as a big league player and manager. For now, he’s slated to continue as Senior Advisor to GM Mike Rizzo, but with Johnson, you can never be too sure of what his next role in baseball will be.

We know what he’s already done though.

Johnson has managed five different clubs, winning six division titles, one pennant and one World Series title.  I sat down with Davey and asked him about the season, the Nationals organization going forward, his managerial career coming to a close in Washington and what his future might hold.

Craig Heist: Davey, I know this season hasn’t gone the way you wanted it to and barring a miracle finish in the last week, you will miss out on the post season.  Do you look at it as a disappointing year for you?

Davey Johnson: Well, when you are picked to win and you don’t win, it’s disappointing.  Some guys didn’t do what they are capable of, we had a few injuries and we didn’t have a lot of depth to back it up and some strange things happened.  The configuration of the ball club was a little bit different and we didn’t make the adjustments needed to be to play well the whole first half.  So, it what it is, you know, you’re never happy unless you win.

CH: With the talent that is in that clubhouse, if someone were to tell you four months in, you’re hitting .239 as a team and second from the last in the league in runs scored, what are you saying?

DJ: Well, I’m saying guys are trying too hard and or approach is wrong but I think a lot of the things we did in 2012 that we didn’t do starting out in ’13 is, we were very aggressive.  You know, when Harper came on board everybody was swinging the bats and we were very aggressive and starting in ’13, we were kind of passive.  Denard Span was very passive and taking a lot of pitches and I think it just gives the pitcher an advantage.  You know, you get behind and they can make tough pitches so, you don’t get on base, you don’t get hits and you don’t score runs.

CH: I know how competitive you are.  I covered you in two different places now.  If it doesn’t work out and because of all the “World Series or Bust” statement before the start of the season, how do you feel about that now?

DJ: Well, I feel fine.  I don’t think I would do anything different and I think when I think back, because I do put enough thought into everything I do and the players that I play, that it’s the best choice.  I am disappointed because I don’t think a lot of guys didn’t play up to their potential early.  We did have some shortcomings that we couldn’t overcome.  But, be that as it may, it’s still a great franchise, it’s still got a lot of great players and I think they are going to be a whole lot better starting off next year than we were this last year.

CH: Because of this (season not going as planned) is there any part of you that would want to do this one more time?

DJ: I always love to do it but I’m not even thinking about coming back here.  I think its time to turn it over to a younger man and let them run with it.  I think everything is in place.  I think the organization and the Lerner family has really done a great job building a great foundation, (Mike) Rizzo has been an outstanding GM and I think the future is really bright here and it’s going to be very exciting for somebody to come in here and it’s going to be an awfully good baseball town for years to come.

CH: What about you and your plans for the future in terms of being a consultant?

DJ: Well, I have a lot of—I have already been offered another job.  I have been offered a job in the Florida Collegiate Summer League so they said I can have my old job back when I get down there.  I also want to get down there to the Major League Youth Academy in Orlando.  Who knows, every time I finish up a season and don’t have anything lined up in the future, somebody calls me and gives me something challenging or whatever, and I’ll be open to all of that.

CH: When you look back on your career, what’s the biggest highlight and maybe the biggest disappointment?

DJ: I think the highlight obviously was getting to the World Series in my first year as a player and beating the Dodgers in four straight, and the other highlight was managing the Mets to the 1986 championship.  I don’t have any memories of any real disappointing things.  I would have liked to have been able to stay in New York a little longer and fix things that were going the wrong way but they chose to go in a different direction.  But, I have enjoyed the opportunity to be in a lot of different organizations, managed all around the world, and I wouldn’t change much about my career. It’s all been fun.

CH: What stands out to you about the direction this organization is going in?

DJ: Well, they’ve done everything right.  They have built a great ballpark.  It’s functionally top drawer.  A lot of these people who build ballparks, they’re functionally obsolete right away.  The Lerner family does a great deal of charity work for the inner city kids and the military.  I mean, they get A-plus grades across the board as far as ownership and they have hired good baseball people and let them run the program.  They’ve gotten some good draft picks and they continue to get good draft picks.  This is a fine organization and it might be the best of all the ones I’ve been with.

CH: With the players this club has at the Major League level and then throughout the organization, what can you say about the stability of the team and organization and where they might look for improvements?

DJ: I am happy with what is here and I don’t see the need for a lot of additions in the off-season.  That’s good news also because I think there are a lot of good players knocking on the door giving you a lot of insurance at a lot of places where we haven’t had in it in the last year or two.

CH: For as frustrating as this year has been in terms of wins and losses, can you look back at it sometimes and say, that’s just the game and that’s the way it is sometimes?

DJ: You know, as long as you prepare for every game and you put your best foot forward that day with an eye on tomorrow, I take what this game gives you.  I have been very blessed and very fortunate to have a lot of teams play up to their potential and that’s all I can ask of a player and it’s been fun for me.  I feel very lucky.

Washington Nationals still confident in post-season aspirations

There is an old saying baseball that goes something like this: you are going to win 60, you are going to lose 60, and it’s what you do with the rest of the games that count.

Entering a four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies this week, the Nationals had won six of their previous eight games, including four straight and a sweep of the San Diego Padres over the weekend at Nationals Park. But the trip to Philly, and three straight starts against left-handed pitching, didn’t go quite the way the Nats hoped as the team dropped three out of the four games in the series to start a seven-game road trip that concludes with a three-game series in Miami against the Marlins and the All-Star break.

As we all know, the baseball season is full of ups and downs, winning streaks and losing streaks, but the defending National League East Champions are at a crossroads a few games into the second half the season.

The Nats are currently ranked 13th in the National League offensively.  They are next-to-last in the league in fielding, with only the Los Angeles Dodgers behind them.  They are, however, fifth in pitching and in the end, that will be their saving grace if they are to make a playoff run.

This is a team that was picked by many of the prognosticators to repeat as N.L. East champs, but they find themselves six games behind the Braves — and just 1 1/2 games ahead of Philly in third place — as the final weekend of play before the All-Star break is upon us, with over 90 games already in the books.

To make matters worse, the Nats trail both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.

Yet, there is no panic within the clubhouse and much of that has to do with skipper Davey Johnson.

In some ways, Johnson has to feel like this is 1996 all over again.  That year, his Orioles were at 50-51 on July 26 and yet the Birds found a way to get hot, win 88 games, and win the Wild Card in the American League, eventually losing to the Yankees in the ALCS in five games.

Johnson has always liked this team despite its inconsistency in the first half and he is well aware through a long baseball season anything can happen.

“The makeup and the effort have been there but we just haven’t done the things we are capable of,” Johnson said. “The pressure of being one of the best teams in baseball, picked to go the farthest, we didn’t handle it that well.  The young guys who were really strong last year were affected the most.  My bench last year was terrific and this year it hasn’t been as good. All those things add up.”

The key for Johnson and the Nationals is to ride out the storm and try to stay within striking distance of the Braves and take a run at them in August and September.

Fans are becoming worried and with good reason.  They look at the standings and see their team’s position and wonder what how does this team right the ship.

“It’s a long season and momentum shifts can take place at any time,” Johnson said.  “Last year our momentum started to shift after we got a little healthier in Colorado.  Our offense was down but our pitching was really holding us in. The run differential was a little better but not much, it was on the positive side.  We’ve had injuries to the pitching staff, all those things, you just have to ride it out and not lose faith and I think that’s where we’re at.”

It’s nothing that a nice seven or eight game winning streak wouldn’t cure, right?

Two years ago, the Red Sox had a nine-game Wild Card lead over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 3 and wound up losing the Wild Card on the final day of the regular season.  Also that year, the Braves lost a 12-game Wild Card lead to the Cardinals with six weeks to play.

Stranger things have happened so the Nationals try to keep their current dilemma in perspective.

“If we can creep up a little bit, I mean, Atlanta is a good team and there are a lot of good teams in this division that we have to play,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “It’s not going to happen just like that. We have to continue to play the kind of baseball we have been playing for the last week-and-a-half, two weeks, for the rest of the season if we are going to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

Johnson said, “All we have to do is play well and play up to our potential and do what we did to win the division last year.  We have played below our potential but we are coming around so, it’s a good feeling.”

Johnson and the Nationals would like to feel a lot better.

With a little support, Jordan Zimmermann has been Washington Nationals’ one constant

Washington—As the Washington Nationals have struggled to find consistency all season, the one sure thing this year has been the pitching of Jordan Zimmermann.

After his win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday night at Nationals Park, Zimmerman is now 12-3 with an ERA of 2.46.  He has allowed more than three runs only three times this season, one of which was on Monday, and leads the National League in wins as the season approaches the All-Star break.

What a difference run support makes for a starting pitcher.

In 2011, Zimmermann finished the year 8-11 with an ERA of 3.18 in 26 starts as he was on a pitch limit in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery and his run support that year was 3.31 runs per game.

In 2012, the right-hander got a little more than a run-and-a-half more per game (4.91) and his record showed it as he went 12-8 with an ERA of 2.94 in 195 2/3 innings

In Zimmermann’s 17 starts this year, the Nationals are averaging 4.7 runs per game and he is making the most of that support.

“It’s definitely a lot easier to pitch and obviously I have been getting that this year,” Zimmermann said.  “I have also been pitching pretty good and I have been trying to put up as many zeroes as I can during the game and I feel like I am doing a pretty good job right now.”

Contrast that with the run support for Stephen Strasburg who won 15 games a year ago.  Strasburg is 4-6 in 16 starts and has pitched to a ridiculous ERA of 2.24 and his run support is a paltry 2.44 runs per games.

It does make a difference.

Zimmermann is finally getting the recognition he deserves.  It’s not that he hasn’t pitched well in the past but now with his record being what it is, people around baseball are starting to take notice.

In fact, over the last two weeks, Zimmermann has tried to shy away from questions about whether or not he is All-Star worthy, although he says it is hard not to think about the possibility of him being on the National League team at Citi Field in New York.

” Yeah, I think it’s possible,” he said. “I’ve had the best first half of my career and I think 12 wins is quite a big number for only the first half and I think I have a couple of starts left so who knows what’s going to happen.”

Teammate Ian Desmond agrees and went as far as to say Zimmermann should start the game.

“It would be a great honor to go there and represent the Nationals,” said Zimmermann.  “It would be a huge honor if I could start the game or just being in the game so we’ll see what happens.”

The most amazing thing about Zimmermann’s progression is he looks basically the same as he did three years ago.  Coming off last season, he decided he was going to work on the change-up and make it a bigger part of his repertoire and it has become a devastating pitch for hitters to try and adjust to.

“Just throwing it every day and working on it every day, it’s a feel pitch and the more you work on it, the better you feel,” he said.  “I am to the point where I feel comfortable throwing it in any count, at any time.  Any time I feel the hitter is sitting on the fastball and I throw that thing in there, I feel like there will be a swing and a miss or weak contact so, it’s been a pretty decent pitch for me.

“I threw it to Cargo (Carlos Gonzalez) the other day and he was way out in front and swung and miss.  Then he looks back up at the scoreboard and sees the speed of it and he’s like, “what was that?” So the next time I face him that will be in the back of his mind and give him another thing to worry about.”

The Nationals stand a full seven games in back of the Braves in the NL East as play started on Wednesday and they have been battling to stay afloat.  Zimmermann says the team is not in a panic mode and feels like they are not in bad shape as the second half begins.

“Obviously, we aren’t playing the best ball and people outside our team are starting to panic and wondering what’s going on but we’re in a good position right now.  We are just a few games back and there are a lot of games to be played and all it takes is a good five or six game winning streak and the Braves to lose a few here and there and you are right back in it.  So, I don’t think its anywhere near time to push the panic button because I think we are right where we need to be.

If he continues to pitch like he has, he may be right.

______________________

Craig Heist has covered sports in the Baltimore/Washington corridor since 1988.  He worked for WTOP Radio from 1999 April of this year.  He is currently a freelance reporter for several radio networks.  Craig is a three-time winner of the Maryland Sportscaster of the year presented by the National Association of Sportswriters and Sportscaster and voted on by his peers.  Heist is also an regional Edward R. Murrow award winner.

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