As the Washington Nationals get ready to end the 2013 season this weekend in Phoenix against the Arizona Diamondbacks, they have one last thing to accomplish: these are the last three games before manager Davey Johnson retires, and his team wants to send him out a winner.
They’ll want to do so in large part for what he did for each and every one of them while he served for two and a half years as the Nationals’ manager. Johnson guided this team to their first back-to-back winning season’s since the franchise relocated from Montreal to Washington back in 2005. He got them their first NL East title and a spot in the postseason, while at the same time developing a group of very young players.
This was supposed to have been the season that they surpassed the 98 wins they achieved in 2012, defended their NL East crown and made it to the World Series.
Well, as the old saying goes, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.” While the Nationals were making plans to get back to the playoffs, they had a number of key injuries, could not score runs when they needed them, and the bullpen failed them at some very critical times.
Johnson never gave up on the team and their chances to return to the postseason. He pushed them and they responded by finishing the season as one of the hottest teams in baseball. There were many lessons learned, and they will enter the offseason feeling a great deal better than most might have expected about two months ago.
The players know they owe Davey Johnson a great deal for his support. He defended the decision of the front office and the medical staff to shut down Stephen Strasburg in the middle of a run to the playoffs. He opened far too many press conferences last fall talking more about not having Strasburg in rotation than he did about actually making it to the playoffs.
It was Johnson who told GM Mike Rizzo that he wanted Bryce Harper promoted to the big club. When Rizzo told Johnson that Harper’s numbers in Syracuse were not that good, Johnson told his GM, “the kid is bored, get him up here.”
When Jayson Werth was going through a tough time getting his hitting stroke back, it was Johnson that personally threw him batting practice so he could help identify what the problem was. He spent hours working with Anthony Rendon teaching him how to play second base and making sure that shortstop Ian Desmond had a hand in helping. It made Desmond a team leader and Rendon a better second baseman.
He made sure the club brought back Adam LaRoche, knowing that even more important than his offensive and defensive abilities was what he did in the clubhouse as a team leader. The list goes on with guys like Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span and too many others to mention.
Ray Knight, who serves as part of the Nationals’ broadcast team and both played as well as coached for Johnson, once told me why he was such a good manager. “Davey is a good manager because he never stops teaching. You can be a rookie or a baseball lifer and he is always out there, helping you become a better player.”
Johnson is far from perfect and without a doubt, some of the blame for the Nationals not living up to to their expectations falls directly at his feet. But it is also important to note that without Johnson the teacher, it would be interesting to see just how far the Nationals would have progressed over the past two and a half seasons.
The debate over if and when Johnson will make the Hall of Fame as a manager is a debate for another day. But as the sun sets over the Arizona desert and Nationals close the book on the 2013 season, make no mistake about it: the guys with the curly W’s on their hats want to send their manager out on a winning note.