Friday, September 27, 2013

Johnson Deserved a Better Farewell

By Jeff Kallman

The one thing his coming departure has in common with his previous departures as a major league manager is that most his players aren't in that big a hurry to see Davey Johnson leave the dugout.

Presented with a striking Tiffany crystal on his appreciation day in Washington Sunday, Johnson is about to finish his tenure on the Nationals' bridge by his choice — for the first time since he became a major league manager. The only part of the equation that isn't his choice is stepping down before October.

Maybe it should have been seen inevitable when the Nats fell as far out as 15 and a half games in the National League East and 9 and a half in the wild card standings. But the man who said in spring training that it was the World Series or bust simply couldn't conceive that it would be bust when he awoke September 24.

Sunday morning, he awoke with his Nats having a shot at moving to within three games of a postseason entry. By Sunday night, they'd split two with the Miami Marlins, but still had a shard of hope for Monday.

Except that the Pittsburgh Pirates got yanked into the postseason on the bat of Starling Marte hitting a tie-breaking solo bomb in the top of the ninth and Andrew McCutchen, the no-questions-asked face of the new Pirates, throwing out the potential tying Chicago Cubs run with two out in the bottom of the ninth.

And the Cincinnati Reds secured a postseason trip by beating the New York Mets in 10.

And the St. Louis Cardinals put bust to the Nats' 2013 Monday, in a game the Nats opened with a 2-1 lead, when Jayson Werth hit Adam Wainwright's early mistake over the left field fence with Denard Span (leadoff single) aboard. But rookie Tanner Roark served up a 2-run homer to Carlos Beltran to smash a 2-all tie in the fifth, Wainwright got stingier as the game got older, and the most the Nats could do once Wainweight yielded in the eighth with first and second and nobody out was a 1-run groundout off two Cardinal relievers.

It wasn't exactly deja vu all over again, not in calendar terms, but weren't those the same Cardinals, just about, who'd shoved them out of the postseason last year? When the Nats opened Game 5 of the division series with a 6-0 lead — battering Wainwright to get it, no less — and, from there, couldn't resist trying to hit 6-run homers in every at-bat or bag single-throw strikeouts on every pitch? When the Cardinals took one look at the Nats' sudden impatience and knew it was just a matter of when? Even though the Nats would get them down to their final strike anyway?

"We dug out own hole," Johnson told CSN Washington, summing up this season with a week remaining, "and we just couldn't dig out of it.”

Not that they didn't try once they'd fallen in. As of August 9, they stood at 54-60 to match that 15 and a half NL East deficit and that 9 and a half wild card deficit. Then they did what everyone thought they would have done in April or even May: winning 29 out of their next 40 games. Those were sweat bullets you saw in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati during that rip.

A rip that ended up with the Nats' hearts ripped out. And Johnson knew exactly what was to blame. He said it himself: this year's bullpen wasn't as efficient as last year's; this year's bench wasn't as productive; this year's offense was riddled with some injuries and some inconsistencies; and this year's pitching staff overall didn't have quite the depth of last year's.

Now Johnson manages out a string. So much for a little psychic revenge, so much for doing their part to turn the National League Central into a to-the-wire dogfight, what with the Pirates and the Reds each a mere two games out of first as the Nats were eliminated. Rookie Michael Wacha got to within an out of no-hitting them Tuesday, a high chopper over the mound and a wide throw fracturing the rook's jewel. And Shelby Miller, the better-heralded among the Cardinals' rooks, beat them Wednesday to win his 15th and finish sweeping the Johnson's charges.

The Nats finish with three against the Arizona Diamondbacks, already eliminated. There goes the fun.

"I wish it didn't have to end. I appreciate the time we've had with him, but I wish we had more time,” said pitcher Gio Gonzalez. "It has been so much fun being around him.”

Adam LaRoche lamented that the Nats couldn't give Johnson a farewell gift of October. Bryce Harper, whose injury issues this season had a considerable amount to do with the Nats' early-and-often faltering, still can't forget the phone call he got when going through a rough spell in the minors.

"I'll always appreciate the faith he had in me as a 19-year-old player,” Harper said while lingering in the locker room long after Monday's game was in the books. "He called me up at a time when I was hitting [.243] in the minors. He believed in me. I'll never forget that.”

Johnson has always been a forward thinker (he was damn near the first manager to make a computer part of the tools of his trade), a players' manager and a front office headache, at least until he came to the Nats by way of the front office. The only time it might have gotten testy was when batting instructor Rick Eckstein was executed in July.

He opened this spring training the way he always preferred: loose and uncluttered. He always did prefer the swift April start and wanted his players fresh for that. This time, alas, what he got was a slightly altered roster and, after a sleek enough 7-2 season start, a collapse of fundamental baseball right under his very nose.

He hoped that the better Nats suffering the injury bug could continue to yank the team back up whenever they were healthy.

But he couldn't do a thing about Stephen Strasburg having to pitch 16 games with two or fewer runs to work with (in those games, Strasburg kept hitters to a .191 batting average and a 2.55 on base percentage) while getting a little careless in in the seven in which he had 3-5 runs to work with. (.264 BA; .345 OBP.)

He couldn't get past second baseman Danny Espinoza's career literally imploding before his very eyes. He couldn't get past his fifth starter, Dan Haren, turning into a one-man wrecking crew who wrecked his own team more than the other team most of the way. He couldn't get past Drew Storen's collapse. (It didn't help that a gassed Storen probably didn't belong in Game 5 to begin with, and that the front office decided to bring aboard Rafael Soriano anyway.) He couldn't get past the reality that over a third of his club suddenly seemed lost for executing the little things that make the big things easier.

And he might have begun hammering into Bryce Harper's head the idea that you don't have to have intimate relations with every outfield fence plank to make plays in centerfield, but his retirement may not necessarily guarantee his successor will finish the job.

With extremely few exceptions, Johnson never departed any managerial job without his players' respect or affection, or both. This is the man who once had a love-hate relationship with Darryl Strawberry, a player who didn't seem to love himself enough or able to stop hating himself enough.

Strawberry seethed publicly when Johnson double-switched him out of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and almost got into a fistfight with the manager over his leaving the bench in the ninth inning of another game. Yet when Johnson was canned as the Mets' manager following a slightly sub-.500 1990 start, Strawberry was so distraught he threatened to not even think about a new Mets contract offer at that season's end.

For the first time in his managerial career Johnson's leaving under his own volition. Sort of. Nobody's pinking him over one or another team slump, one or another disagreement with the front office, one or another bitten-off curse while the front office makes hash of a team he likes, but you can understand Thomas Boswell noting the Nats aren't exactly in the market for a manager past Social Security age.

Johnson hoped he'd retire with one more postseason under his belt at minimum and a second World Series ring at maximum. He may have to settle for a plaque in Cooperstown.

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