The thrill of the Nationals’ 2-1 victory stayed with Johnson after it ended. It did not matter that they had beaten the Cardinals on a lazy, spring training day; it would not have mattered to Johnson had he watched the inning unfold in the dugout of his old Florida Collegiate Summer League team.
For Johnson, the final inning and a half encapsulated why baseball produces joy within him. There were great pitches, timely hits, strategic decisions. The span included both teams’ closers trying to hold a man in scoring position. Four batters struck out, and four hit singles. A play at the plate, so closely contested Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny argued the umpire’s call, decided the game.
“That’s baseball,” Johnson said. “I love baseball. I love it when it gets tense like that. I like every pitch. Every little thing just intensifies it. Regardless of whether we were successful at it or fail at it, that’s baseball.”
It began with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, when the Nationals sent to the mound Henry Rodriguez, the hard-throwing Venezuelan who has harnessed his control and become, for this month, anyway, the most dominant pitcher on staff.
Cardinals center fielder Shane Robinson led off with an infield single to third, just the fifth hit Rodriguez allowed all spring. Matheny asked Rafael Furcal to bunt, and he successfully executed a sacrifice. The corner infielders charged and Danny Espinosa scooted over to cover first. Third baseman Chad Tracy fired to Espinosa to record the out.
Rodriguez blew away Daniel Descalso, leaving him defenseless against an arsenal of pitches that he’s used to strike out 11 batters in 10 innings this spring. “That’ll send somebody into retirement,” third base coach Bo Porter said.
Up came Tyler Greene. Rodriguez threw the hardest fastball in the majors last season, but catcher Wilson Ramos knew Greene was a fastball hitter. He started Greene with two breaking balls outside, which put Rodriguez ahead in the count and made Greene think about the curve. Then Rodriguez unleashed an inside fastball, strike three, inning over.
“Just the pitch selection going after it, the way Ramos worked him, all that, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Johnson said. “If that doesn’t get your motor running, nothing will.”
Having held off the Cardinals, the Nationals went to the ninth with a chance to win. Espinosa fell behind Jason Motte, the Cardinals closer who last fall cinched the World Series, and faced a two-strike count.
Espinosa had struck out 24 times this spring, but he had been started feeling comfortable with his two-strike approach, and about his swing as a whole, from both sides of the plate. Earlier in the game, batting right-handed against Jaime Garcia, Espinosa looked for a pitch and got it, blasting an opposite-field home run, his first homer this spring.
Against Motte, all he wanted to do was get on base. Motte fired his strikeout pitch, and Espinosa easily swatted it the other way, into left field for a single. The home run had felt great, but Espinosa felt even better about his two-strike single.
“I stuck with my approach I try to stay with all the time,” Espinosa said. “That’s what I want to do with two strikes. I don’t want to try to do too much. I was able to get a pitch I stayed on a little bit and just kind of soft serve it out to left field.”
And so the Nationals had the lead runner on. Lombardozzi tried to bunt him to second, but he struck out after his attempt failed. The Nationals would have to score Espinosa with hits.
Roger Bernadina rolled a single through the right side, pushing Espinosa to second. Up came Mark DeRosa, the veteran the Nationals signed this winter to serve as a bench player and something of an extra coach. They never expected his thrice-repaired wrist would allow him to compiled a .581 on-base percentage this spring.
DeRosa stayed hot, sending Motte’s offering into right field. Eugenio Velez fielded the ball and rifled a throw home to catcher Tony Cruz. Porter windmilled Espinosa home. He slid. Dust flew. The umpire called safe.
Matheny charged out of the dugout to argue. Porter thought Espinosa had definitely beat the throw. Johnson didn’t think Cruz ever tagged Espinosa. Either way, the Nationals had their run, and, after Ryan Mattheus’s scoreless ninth, the game in hand.
“You drive two hours, you might as well try and win the game,” DeRosa said. “A lot of guys did good things today. You’re starting to see, like playing against the Marlins the other night, like a regular season game. I know guys don’t have that same drive and same fire, but it’s getting close.”
In the dugout, Johnson relished every pitch, the individuals involved, the mean injected into every moment. Afterward, sitting with one leg up on the desk in his office, he could still not stop smiling.
“That’s just baseball,” Johnson said. “It’s just fun, fun, fun.”