Even after thirteen seasons as a Major Leaguer, sixteen as a manager and over 50 years total in the game, Opening Day is still special for 70-year-old Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson and he still loves watching baseball. This one, as he reiterated this morning, will likely be his last, however. Not much has changed over the years. "It's the same old, same old," the Nats' skipper said, "I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about things. Everybody's got to get excited for Opening Day. We'll be a little nervous until after the first pitch, but everybody's starting out equal, and it's a good challenge for everybody and a lot of expectations whether you had a good season last year or not. It's a fun day. Too much ceremony, but other than that it's a fun day."
After the unveiling of the 2012 NL East Championship banner and the introductions, the ceremonial first pitch and "Play Ball!" call, the Nationals and Miami Marlins will start their respective 2013 campaigns with Stephen Strasburg on the mound facing a team he's seen more than any other opponent thus far in his career. The 24-year-old, '09 no.1 overall pick is (4-2) with a 3.17 ERA, 14 walks (2.61 BB/9) and 48 Ks (8.94 K/9) in 48.1 IP against the Fish. The last two times he's faced the Marlins though, Strasburg's been hit hard by the Nats' divisional rivals. The Marlins put up a combined 15 hits and 12 runs, 10 earned in the last 8.0 innings against the Nationals' ace.
Strasburg's opponent on the mound this afternoon, 30-year-old right-hander Ricky Nolasco enters today's game with a streak of 22.0 scoreless innings going against the defending NL East Champs going back through three starts, the last two 9.0-inning outings in which he allowed just nine hits and one walk while striking out 12 Nats' batters. In his career, the seven-year veteran is (11-5) against Washington, with a 3.57 ERA, 22 walks (1.78 BB/9) and 99 Ks (8.03 K/9) in 111.0 IP.
Davey Johnson told reporters this morning that his team was prepared to face the Marlins' starter. "We went over him yesterday in the hitter's report," Johnson said. The Nationals have been watching video to prepare for Nolasco. "I think we're mentally prepared as well as physically," Johnson said. While they're ready for the season to start, the Nats' manager said he's not too worried about the results of any one game. "I don't put too much stock in just one game. I feel like we're prepared to get off to a good start. My criteria is generally the first month, the first couple of weeks to a month is what I call a good start. It's basically if everybody comes out of Spring Training healthy and you like the way they're throwing and like the way they're swinging, you generally get off to a good start."
The Nationals' manager said he hasn't spent too much time thinking about the way the 2012 season ended. The Nats won 98 games and brought postseason baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933, but the heartbreaking loss to the Cardinals that ended the year still lingers for some. Not Davey Johnson, he said it was just another step. "I always look at it as kind of a progression. I look where we ended up. I know the reasons why we ended up where we ended up and I know the reasons why we didn't go further.
"It's always to me looking at every individual, every aspect of offense and defense and the pitching and where each guy has progressed to and where I think they can still progress further. That's why, obviously, two years ago I said if we play to our potential we'll win the division and I think [this] year, at your prodding, we came up with 'World Series or Bust!' But that's a known progression when the talent level and the performance come together and our task this year is just to keep that going. It's still a very young ballclub. It still has some growing to do. And the only way you're going to get it is just in the heat of battle."
Writers around the game are predicting big things for the Nationals in 2013, but Davey Johnson said his team's unfazed by all that. "I don't think it's going to make any difference whether we were on the radar or off the radar as far as predictions and all that. Our guys have always had a lot of pride and a little bit of ego in knowing they're pretty good and wanting to prove it to people. But some of guys, well quite a few guys on this ballclub, still have a little more growing to do and it's fun as a manager watching them develop and play like they're capable of playing."
Johnson said he doesn't feel any more pressure in what will be his last season on the bench in the nation's capital. "I feel more pressure in just competing. I like to compete and I like to see talented players compete. My job is basically, to get them to try [not] to do too much. Sometimes you prod them a little bit, but this ballclub needs very little prodding."
Asked if this would be his last Opening Day in uniform, Johnson joked with reporters and said, "It's my last one sitting here and talking to you," but he didn't rule out anything. "I don't know what lies in store for me, I have no idea." Is there any possibility he returns to the bench in D.C. next season? "Probably not," Johnson said, "I've mentioned it before. I think I'm the person for the challenge this year. I think the development of this ballclub can culminate at the end of this year. Then, probably turn it over to a younger, more energetic manager. That's my thought..."
Will he manage any differently knowing it might be his last run? "I hope not," the Nationals' manager said, "Again I hate to be repeating myself all the time, but I enjoy the game of baseball. I love baseball. And watching some talented guys compete and handle adversity and how they handle it and how they get better, and how it all fits together. I enjoy that every day. That's exciting for me. That keeps my heart pumping."
"I'm going to enjoy this year," Johnson concluded.