WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson looks on during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park on May 16, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Would Washington Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson have used Henry Rodriguez last night if it had been a one-run game as it was shaping up to be before the Nats added three runs in the bottom of the seventh? He said yes. The 69-year-old skipper told reporters before the game that he might give the right-handed reliever another night off after his recent struggles. We'll never know, of course, because Adam LaRoche's 1,000th career hit, a double, cleared the bases in the seventh and put the Nats up 7-3. Tyler Clippard gave up a run in the eighth to once again turn it into a save situation, and Davey Johnson brought Rodriguez out, but he also had Ryan Mattheus warming, for the Nats beat writer's sake he joked after last night's game, "... so you guys wouldn't get real nervous." The manager said he did get nervous though, turning serious for a moment, "When [Ian Desmond] booted that ball," on an error at short in the first at bat of the ninth. "My heart dropped a little bit," Johnson said. Check the Tweeter, Davey, all of NatsTown experienced the same sinking feeling...
"But Henry came right back and struck out the next hitter," the manager said, "And then the next guy, got the double play. Very happy ending." The 13-pitch, 9 strike outing followed back-to-back appearances in which the 25-year-old reliever struggled, giving up two hits, two walks and a walk-off grand slam Sunday in Cincinnati and walking the bases loaded on Monday night before he was lifted with one down in the ninth inning of a game Sean Burnett eventually saved. Davey Johnson told reporters that he chalked Monday's night's struggles up to overuse, explaining in a post game press conference that, "... that was [Rodriguez's] third day in a row going and he threw a lot of pitches in Cincy," before insisting that he continued to have confidence in the reliever's abilities.
After last night's outing, which started with the Desmond error on a grounder from Pirates' catcher Rod Barajas, who'd started the recent trouble for the Nats' reliever with a walk-off blast last week when the two teams played in Pittsburgh, the Nats' manager explained his approach to the handling of his reliever. "He always looks pretty good to me," Johnson said, "Except when it's not getting close to the plate. Then I think, that's where he goes in another gear and starts trying to do too much. That's typical with all young players. You just have to have confidence in them, and I do, and the whole club does, really."
"Closing's not easy," the former major leaguer-turned-manager said, stating the obvious, "And especially that game, I was going to have him in there in a one-run game. I didn't want him to blow the save. I didn't want that to even be a factor. But he was throwing good, and I was pretty relaxed over there considering... considering all the questions I've been getting." When reporters have asked recently, Johnson's consistently said that he has confidence in his reliever, which some of see as a manager or executive simply saying what they have to say, but as the Nats' skipper explained, "I don't have to say that to players, I play them."
"I did go up to [Rodriguez] today and yesterday and ask him how he's feeling," Johnson said, explaining that he'd engaged in small talk with the reliever and practiced his spanish in the conversation in which he got the feeling the Rodriguez was in the right frame of mind. "He was all smiles," the manager continued, "and so, I'm with you. And it doesn't matter what I say to him beforehand or whatever. I call his name and he knows that I'm calling because I've got confidence in him. It's that simple. Any time you put a guy's name in the lineup, they know you've got confidence in them."
"Sometime it's harder when you're managing," Johnson said, "Because you know what you expect out of them, and you know you're going to get it, but you've got to stay with them. And that goes for every player, not just the closer." Johnson's stuck Henry Rodriguez. He's stuck with Danny Espinosa (who's starting to turn things around, sort of?) He's talked about the issues each of those player and others have had, talked about talking to them, and done so openly, using the media to motivate them to some degree. You get the feeling listening to him on a daily basis that there's not one word Davey Johnson says that isn't designed or pre-planned to have some influence on his team as a whole or one player in particular.
Washington Post reporter Thomas Boswell wrote before this season, in an article entitled, "Nationals in the midst of a mental makeover under Davey Johnson," that it was all part of the plan, and the role the manager saw himself playing, as he attempted to, "Create a relaxed and playful, but studious and ultra-confident atmosphere in which players like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos can discover and fulfill their gifts,":
"Three of the four teams Johnson has managed have responded to this approach by developing individual confidence and a collective identity that allowed them to blow past almost every expectation — except their manager’s — and to do it quickly."
In spite of all the injury issues the Nationals have dealt with, the slumping players, struggling relievers and lack of runs they've scored thus far, they've gotten tremendous results from their starters, bullpen and defense so far, and the Nats are in first place in the NL East as of this morning. Of course it's only the 17th of May. But Johnson's been able to motivate the players he does have available and a few weeks back he finally got the left-handed bat he's wanted in the person of Bryce Harper, who's transition to the majors he's been entrusted with overseeing. A master manipulator sounds too sinister. A master motivator is more like it, with the major league resume to back up what he says. Now if only we could figure out Johnson's motivation in leaking the Strasburg "Hot Stuff" story?