SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 26: Jayson Werth #28 of the Washington Nationals hits a solo home run during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on April 26, 2012 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
• Change Agent: It was after a five-game losing streak in May of 2011, with the Washington Nationals in the midst of a stretch of 13 games in which the team was 3-10, that outfielder Jayson Werth, who'd signed a 7-year/$126M dollar deal the previous winter, uttered the following words in a post game press conference in Milwaukee:
"'Things,'" Werth said, "'need to change.'"
Asked to elaborate on what sort of "things" he was referring to, the 33-year-old outfielder told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, "'I’ve got some ideas obviously, and some thoughts, none I really want to share with the world. I think it’s pretty obvious what’s going on around here.'"
"'I'm not really going to get into it right now,'" NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman quoted Werth [not]-explaining, "It is what it is. It's unfortunate. We're a way better ballclub."
While some wondered if the outfielder was referring to a need for a change on the bench, the manager at the time, Jim Riggleman, spoke to Werth when the team returned to the nation's capital and asked directly if he thought the outfielder meant the manager should go, Riggleman said, "I guess the short answer is no... but the long answer is... 'changes'? That we've got to start winning ballgames. The losing that's taken place here for a couple years that's got to change. We've got to change some things that we do, how we play, whatever. But that's about as long as I'll get on that I guess, but to answer your question, no." Riggleman said he didn't think Werth was referring to a change on the bench.
Werth said much the same following the conversation with Riggleman, telling SI.com's Mel Antonen, "'It has nothing to do with personnel changes, change this or change that. That's all words put into my mouth. We need to starting winning. We need to start hitting. That's the bottom line.'" The culture within the clubhouse and the organization needed to change, Werth insisted, from the Presidents Race on up. About two weeks later, after a stretch in which the team was 6-8, the Nationals went on a winning streak, going 11-1 over a stretch of 12 games that ended with a 1-0 victory over Seattle which lifted Washinton one game over .500 at 38-37 overall on June 23rd.
Following that victory over the Mariners, Jim Riggleman asked for a talk about picking up his option for 2012, claiming (to sum up his argument) that he couldn't manage the team on a one-year deal. As D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained after Riggleman resigned that afternoon, "... it came down to I wasn't prepared to exercise the option in his contract, and he demanded that we would or he wasn't going to continue as the manager and I accepted his resignation because I thought it was an important enough decision that I wasn't going to make a decision in the short-term window that I had and it just went from there."
As for Jayson Werth's thoughts after Riggleman had resigned? MASNSports.com's Ben Goessling quoted Werth explaining at the time that he was just as surprised by the move as anyone else. "'I was probably as surprised as you guys were,'" Werth told reporters, "'But whether I agree or disagree with it, I respect Jim's decision. He's moving on. We're moving on. We've got a ballgame tomorrow, and we've got over half the season left. I still feel really good about where we're at and where we're going.'"
Enter Davey Johnson.
Why dredge up all this drama again?
• Hitting School With Davey Johnson:
Well, it started with a discussion the Nats' 69-year-old skipper, who is 117-93 as the Nationals' manager and has led them to a 77-50 record this year, had with reporters before the start of last week's series with the Atlanta Braves. Washington had just gone 12-3 in their last 15 games and they were set to take on the NL East's second-place team. Johnson was asked how, after a year of promising that the team's offense was better than it appeared, he'd finally managed to get the offense running the way he'd said it could.
"Well, a lot of things," Johnson began, "To a man, we got a little too much concerned about hitting the ball the other way. I think the regime in here before liked everybody to go the other way and we really couldn't handle fastballs in. I mean, we didn't hit the ball where it was pitched. We had the talent to hit the ball where it was pitched, but we were a little defensive hitting. And some of the young guys came in, had the same thing, not all of them. But gradually, and that process takes a little time, I mean Jayson [Werth], he was into going the other way. [Ryan Zimmerman] through his injuries was basically going the other way. Michael Morse, everybody."
"The book on us," Johnson continued, "And I don't mind telling you, because everybody in the world knows it. 'Pound them in with hard stuff!' And we weren't able to do much. Like I said, even Keith Hernandez came to me at the end of last year and said, 'What, you guys don't like a fastball or something?' And I said, 'I know that's true. We don't. Unless it's way away from us.' But Rick Eckstein has done a great job, he's got them still staying inside the ball, but hitting it where it's pitched. Not having to cheat to get to the fastball in. Just become better hitters. And we're not 100% to where we need to be, but I think we'll get to [it]. Because certain hitters still have lapses going back [to] I almost call it a defensive swing. It's a longer swing. But when we face a really good pitcher, unless we're in that attack mode. We can be pitched to."
"But I think we've really grown a lot and I tip my hat to Rick," the Nats' manager said, "He's worked hard and guys know who they are and they know what they're capable of, and [Danny Espinosa] and [Ian Desmond] were two of the prime examples of the way, 'Take the ball in, look for the ball away.' But we're becoming, now we're doing the things I knew we were capable of and that's what I call playing up to your potential."
"It's just real simple," Johnson said in concluding his explanation, "Pitchers try to keep hitters from extending. And that's why they change speeds and either get [hitters] way out front and then throw it hard in so they can't extend their arms and the bat. And we were kind of helping with that, and it was easy to keep us from extending."
When the changes Johnson described and he and Eckstein have implemented were mentioned to Werth, the outfielder told the MLB.com's Bill Ladson in article entitled, "Nationals banking on new offensive philosophy", (which was a good one that covered a lot of the quotes from Johnson above along with stuff from Eckstein and the hitters) that the changes were made possible by the presence of Davey Johnson on the Nationals' bench, and the influence he has on his players, and the weight that his words carry thanks to his track record and history:
"'Between last year and this year, it's night and day,' Werth said. 'Just the whole atmosphere in the clubhouse. You have an iconic manager that really knows how to handle this team. If we still had a guy like [Jim] Riggleman as the manager, I don't think the team is where it's at.'
"Asked why he felt that way, Werth said, 'You have a guy [in Johnson] that is confident in himself and in his players. That alone can go a long way. ... Being a big league player for so long, being a big league manager for so long, Davey has a real good feel [for the game].'"
When Davey talks the players listen. When they listen to Davey Johnson they usually get good advice. As soon as they realize that, the Nats' manager has them.