Washington Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson knew that Cincinnati's manager Dusty Baker might go to his bullpen if he brought left-handed bench bat Chad Tracy (and his .294/.354/.471 line vs RHP) to the plate with the Nats down 1-0 to the Reds in Nationals Park last night in the bottom of the eighth, in spite of the fact that Cincy starter Bronson Arroyo had dominated the Nationals up to that point, giving up just three hits on 94 pitches in 7.1 scoreless innings of work. "I knew that that was a possibility," Johnson told reporters after the game, "But [Arroyo] was pitching such a strong game I figured [Baker] was going to let him pitch to [Tracy], but I told him when he went up there, if they bring a lefty, that's it, but [we'll] get Arroyo out of the game." The Reds' manager did go to the bullpen when Tracy was announced, bringing on former Montreal Expos' 1st Round pick and one-time Nats' reliever, left-hander Bill Bray. Johnson burned his pinch hitter and sent right-handed bat Xavier Nady (and his .291/.350/.450 line vs LHP) to the plate...
Two fastballs and one long fly ball into the left field visitor's bullpen later, it was a tie game after Nady took the Reds' reliever deep for his first HR of the year which tied the game at 1-1. The HR not only tied the game, but had the added benefit of saving Jordan Zimmermann from a hard-luck loss after he'd once again pitched a gem but received no run support from the Nationals' bats. The 25-year-old right-hander gave up just one run on three hits in 7.0 innings over which he threw 100 pitches, 71 for strikes while walking two, striking out three and inducing thirteen ground ball outs. "I was tickled to death that we got him off the hook," the Nats' 69-year-old skipper said after the comeback win, "He pitched another great ballgame, and it would have been tragic for him to lose that ballgame."
"I told him after the ballgame," Johnson continued, "That's an attribute of a good pitcher, you learn how to spit the hook when you've pitched a good ballgame, you leave it behind. But that was the happiest moment in the game when I knew that [Zimmermann] pitched a great game and I'd hate for him to be (0-2) when he'd pitched two great ballgames." It was the available bench bats that gave Johnson the weapons he needed to help his starter avoid taking that loss after such an effort and the manager once again reiterated what a difference having his own kind of bench has meant for him already this season.
"It's no secret I love my bench this year compared to last year," Johnson said, "It kind of mimics the whole ballclub. I think the potential is there and it's just a matter of time. I mean, early on this year I think I've had more production out of my bench than I did [in] three months I was here [in 2011]. Tracy's got some big hits for us coming off the bench. Tonight was a big hit and a lot of guys, even [Steve Lombardozzi] have gotten hits that help us win ballgames. That's something... last year, it was a groundout, ball four, hit batter... and I think the whole ballclub feels that we've got some ammunition sitting on the bench. I've got great double switches, where my offense won't miss a beat."
The big weapon last night, the one that came through in the thirteenth inning, was here when Davey Johnson arrived, and though he struggled through his own first season in the nation's capital the Nats' manager told reporters he's been much better from the start this season. Jayson Werth came through with the bases-loaded one-out walk-off single up the middle that won the game for the Nationals and lifted the team to 6-2 on the year after their fourth-straight win. "I've had conversations with [Werth]," Johnson said, "He's actually in a great frame of mind, he's been swinging the bat good. I think he sometimes makes it tough on himself, demanding too much."
The 32-year-old outfielder has a .303/.395/.394 line (10 hits in 33 at bats) after last night's walk-off winner, and his manager said he's been a different player from the start this year for several reasons. "I think it was big and I think he's going to have a great year," Johnson told reporters last night. "He had a much better Spring. I like the way he swung the bat in the Spring. He's still trying to find his timing and stuff, he's in an out of it, but I like his frame of mind and if he's in the right frame of mind he's going to have a great year and he is in a great frame of mind."
As for what's changed to allow Werth to get more comfortable, Johnson said, "I think with [Ryan Zimmerman] healthy, and [Adam] LaRoche healthy and a lot of the younger players establishing last year and growing up a little bit, I think he can just concentrate on being Jayson Werth more so than trying to spread himself thin. He's a heck of an athlete. This game is tough enough, when you start bearing the burden of your teammates and trying to help out, and I think he doesn't feel the need to do that this year and I think he's a going to be a lot more focused."
A stronger bench, a bullpen that's strong enough to so far have absorbed the loss of their 24-year-old closer, a focused, determined Jayson Werth, a healthy Zimmerman, a healthy LaRoche, a tremendous defensive infield and a starting rotation that's capable of shutting opposing team's offense down on any given night. Davey Johnson has the team he wanted and saw enough potential in last season that he knew he wanted to come back and see what they could do. It's only eight games in, but so far it looks like it's Davey Johnson's team and they're playing like they're starting to believe in themselves as much as their manager does.