When the 2012 Nationals began their season, manager Davey Johnson was tasked with taking a team that had won 80 games the previous season to the next level, to make them a playoff team. He had to take a team overflowing with talent and help them realize their potential as a contender in the National League. But at 69-years-old and the leagues oldest manager, it was a road he had traveled many times before.
Johnson took over as manager of the New York Mets before the 1984 season and saw them improve by 22 wins. In 1996 with the Orioles he helped them climb by 17 victories and make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. And now, after Washingtons 4-1 win over the Dodgers, Johnson has his team in the playoffs and with 11 more wins than they won the previous year.
At 91 wins and counting, Johnson has played a central role in yet another dramatic franchise turnaround. His been there presence and experience is something not lost among his players.
Theres a lot of people around here that you can point fingers at that had a lot to do with the change in direction and everything that goes into that in the ballclub and the organization, but none any bigger than Davey, Jayson Werth said.
When I got here last here, this place was a mess. It was upside down. We had a lot of work to do. At times it felt like we would never get to play in October. Then Davey took over in the middle of the season and kind of did things his own way, went about business the way Davey goes about business and he was the guy that he is. You could start to sense and see that the shape was starting to turn around.
Johnson took over as manager with 83 games left to go in the 2011 season, but was just getting to know his team by the time the year was over. Coming in to 2012 he had a roster built for his style of coaching. He has a deep bench with powerful bats and an A and B bullpen, as he likes to say. But with all the players that make up the Washington Nationals, Johnson has somehow found a way to make them collectively play as the best team in baseball.
One method of coaching that his players say has worked, has to do with downplaying praise aimed towards him and instead keeping focus on the team.
I think that says a lot about it right there, that he downplays everything. He doesnt want the praise going in his direction. He has been phenomenal all year, and not just the things you guys see on the field and the moves he makes, Adam LaRoche said.
The way he handles the young guys and the older guys in here when media and other people arent around, hes a first class guy. He cares about his players and hes made that known, he shows it. He is a great manager.
Second baseman Danny Espinosa describes a sort of hands-off approach by Johnson, something that seems to give his players confidence.
He let us be ourselves. I dont think he ever over-managed any of us. He never tried to control us and say, youre this type of player or youre that type of player. He just allowed us to go out there and prepare the way we prepare and let us play good ball.
With a World Series ring as the skipper of the 1986 Mets, and a baseball life lined with accomplishments, Johnson has handled situations like Thursday night before. As to how he conducted the moments after the game in the locker room, just minutes after the first clinching the first playoff berth for a D.C. baseball team since 1933?
Well we had a little champagne and I guess they wanted me to say something. I said, 'What's this? We ain't done yet.' Something like that. They all had the same feeling. That this was just a baby step to get to the playoffs. But we want to win the division, Johnson said.
You know Davey, hes not going to give a 20 minute speech. He had some brief words, kind of the same thing, congratulations but lets go, we got a big game tomorrow and keep working. He gets it, he knows it is big deal for the organization and the city. But for us, this wasnt the goal coming out of spring, LaRoche said.
The Nationals will be in the playoffs, this they know. But the magic number to clinch the National League East and ensure at least a five-game series remains at eight. Having their season come down to just one game is something Davey and the Nationals know they want nothing to do with. Johnson is making his first appearance in the postseason since 1997 with Baltimore, a span of 15 years, and he wants to make it count.
So as they move forward, with just 13 games left, Johnson must keep his team on the same level they have been all season. Though the Nationals have undoubtedly come far, the transformation isnt quite yet complete.