Davey Johnson sits Adam LaRoche for a mental break; more lineup changes may come


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Nationals Manager Davey Johnson found Adam LaRoche following Tuesday’s lackluster 2-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals – the team’s third shutout in three games and one in which LaRoche fell deeper into his slump — and conveyed a message the first baseman didn’t exactly want to hear. When a veteran struggles, the last thing he wants to be told is that he won’t play the following day, robbing him of the chance to correct his mistakes.

But after Johnson vowed to make a few changes to Wednesday’s lineup, hoping to spark an offense that has produced two runs over the past 28 innings, he told LaRoche he would sit. Tyler Moore would start instead. “‘Not heaping on you but we just gotta shake things up a little bit,’” Johnson said he told LaRoche, who was 0 for his last 10 with seven strikeouts. Johnson wanted LaRoche, signed to a two-year, $24-million deal this winter, to take a mental day off.

“Just like, ‘It’s not all on you, pal,’” Johnson said. “I hated to do it after a really not-so-good day.”

With the exceptions of Bryce Harper and Steve Lombardozzi, Nationals hitters, in Johnson’s view, have been so aggressive, antsy, eager to perform and succeed that they have, in fact, shot themselves in the foot. The Nationals offense has a collective .706 OPS (17th of 30 teams in the majors), has scored 3.7 runs per game (21st) and has seen only 3.79 pitches per plate appearance (22nd).

“They’re motivated trying to make things happen and sometimes when you do that you just play into the hands of the pitcher,” Johnson said. “Too aggressive. Not aggressive enough. You don’t keep it simple enough.”

On Tuesday night, Johnson vowed to make a few changes, but LaRoche was the only real tweak. And that, Johnson admitted, was in part because LaRoche would have faced a left-handed starter in Jaime Garcia, and Moore, who is right-handed, has been hitting left-handed pitching well. Kurt Suzuki, who has caught every inning of the past nine games, was given the day off following a night game. Jhonatan Solano will start.

Johnson, however, suggested that more occasional lineup tweaks could be coming soon. And with a stretch in which they play 12 straight games without a day off, it could be a good time to work in more backups.

“I will go to other guys more just so the other guys don’t feel it’s all on them,” Johnson said. “It’s a long haul and you’ve got to have patience. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing for a manager to have: patience.” Johnson thought about having a few words with the team on Tuesday night, a rarity in his managerial style, but opted against it. He said: “All of them are so motivated and drive to be so good. It’s kinda hard for me to berate them or get on them.”

Johnson has indeed been patient with Danny Espinosa, who is hitting .167/.211/.315. While it appears he may may be struggling, Johnson has seen flashes of the swing that Espinosa improved in the winter and showed this spring. His batting average with balls in play (.182, far below his .333 mark last season) suggests he is even getting unlucky with where he hits the ball. His strikeout rate is down (15.8 percent compared to 28.7 percent last season). But that doesn’t mean Espinosa isn’t immune to having to sit for a day in exchange for Lombardozzi, for example.

Espinosa’s “approach is definitely better,” Johnson said. “I like where he’s at. Just need to have one ballgame to get him going. That could be said for a lot of the guys.

“Danny had a great spring,” Johnson said. “He’s a deep thinker, too. Sometimes he gets in his own way. But if there was a secret formula on how to get guys to relax and do the things they’re capable of doing, then everybody would bottle it. Basically, just have a little patience. I see signs where it looks like he’s really getting focused and then I see times where he gets thinking too much. He’s not alone. Desi does the same thing. Tries to do too much and have conversations with him. Mostly, you gotta just stay positive.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · April 24, 2013