ANAHEIM, Calif. — Davey Johnson claims to enjoy the stress included in the job description for big league manager — “unbelievably so,” he said. And so he picked the perfect team for which to make his return. Monday night, the Washington Nationals entered the bottom of the 10th inning only because they had tied the score with Danny Espinosa’s last-chance homer in the ninth. His closer wasn’t in uniform, his setup man had a tired arm. Welcome back.
The Nationals provided Johnson an immediate, complete glimpse of what life is like in their manager’s office: a constant diet of fingernails, Tums and difficult decisions. Only they forgot which team is supposed to deliver the decisive heroics. In the bottom of the 10th, Sean Burnett allowed a walk-off, bases-loaded single to Maicer Izturis, giving the Nationals a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels before 35,032 at Angels Stadium.
Just as a bonus, Torii Hunter smoked a foul ball into the Nationals’ dugout in the 10th that narrowly missed Johnson’s face, buzzing between him and equipment manager Mike Wallace. After they regrouped and started laughing, Wallace looked at Johnson. “Shoulda been a farmer,” he said.
Four batters later, the game had ended and no one was laughing in the Nationals dugout. The bitter end did not lessen Johnson’s thrill to be back in the game after 11 seasons away from the majors.
“It was a lot of fun,” Johnson said. “I enjoyed every minute of it. It had a little bit of everything in that ballgame. It’s a joy. I love baseball. I enjoyed every pitch that was thrown. That never changes.”
The Nationals, who have still won 13 of 16 games and sit one win over .500, have bailed out many offensively challenged performances with dominant pitching and clutch hitting, but Monday showed what happens when their starter is only good, not great, and their offense cannot score more than a few runs. They have proven their mettle, but they can rely on clutch hitting only so much.
“We don’t want to go down to the last-wire all the time, eighth, ninth inning and try to make a comeback all the time,” Espinosa said. “We have guys that can do it. When you have that on your team, you have a fighting chance.”
Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman gave the Nationals every speck of offense they managed against Angels starter Ervin Santana, smashing a solo home run apiece and collecting four of the six Nationals’ hits. Espinosa clobbered his homer off closer Jordan Walden to give the Nationals a chance, but they received little help, especially from one of their presumed big bats.
Jayson Werth continued his recent drastic slide, going 0 for 5 with three strikeouts, the last looking at inside fastball in the 10th inning against left-handed reliever Scott Downs with Brian Bixler on second base. In his past 20 plate appearances, Werth has one hit, two walks and 11 strikeouts. Seventy-nine games into a seven-year, $126 million contract, Werth is hitting .224.
“He’ll be alright,” Johnson said. “He’s so driven to succeed and do well, carry the ball club. The big news tonight was Zim was in a pretty bad slump, and he came out of that, swung the bat real good. The other guys are going to start joining him. We’re not worried about it.
“He has a lot of expectations. Like I told him before the game, there’s 25 guys that need to contribute. We’re gonna get it.”
The Nationals still managed to take the game into the 10th, even down their two top relievers. Drew Storen was attending his grandmother’s funeral and was just flying back. Tyler Clippard had spoken up about a tired arm during his pregame catch and was shut down for the night. “They always tell me to be vocal,” Clippard said. “I did want to suck it up, but I had to tell them how it felt.”
Johnson had coaxed 31 / 3 scoreless innings out of Ryan Mattheus and Henry Rodriguez, who recorded a career-high seven outs. (When Johnson called for Mattheus, he motioned toward right field — even though the Nationals’ bullpen was in left.) Then he turned to Burnett, who had recently been rock solid. But the Angels ambushed him. Burnett allowed a single, a double, an intentional walk and, finally, the single Izturis smoked up the middle to win the game.
The Nationals needed another clutch performance to even make extra innings. When Laynce Nix led off the ninth inning, the Nationals had not managed a hit off starter Ervin Santana since Ian Desmond’s single in the fifth inning. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia called on Walden, who quickly retired Nix and Morse.
Espinosa represented the Nationals’ final hope. “I was just trying to be ready for a fastball,” Espinosa said. Walden tried to blow a first-pitch fastball by him. Espinosa, who grew up in Southern California, blasted it to right. Walden looked at his feet. He knew immediately that Espinosa had tied the score. The homer also gave him 15 before the all-star break, the most all-time for any rookie second baseman.
“He makes adjustments very well,” Zimmerman said. “He was hitting right around .200 a few weeks ago, and people were kind of doubting him. He just kept working hard, and now he’s slowly climbing to where he wants to be. As far as a young second baseman in the game, I don’t know that there’s one better than him.”
Espinosa trotted around the bases and continued toward the dugout, where Johnson awaited with a huge, toothy smile and a high five.
“I’m glad I got a good rotator cuff,” Johnson said. “Because he almost broke my arm.”
Starter John Lannan yielded three earned runs — his most in a start since May 21 – in 5 2 / 3 innings, watching the go-ahead run score on a single by Bobby Wilson with two outs in the sixth inning, the third consecutive single he allowed and the 11th the Angels smacked off him in the game. Because of his thin bullpen, “I probably went a little further than I should have with Lannan,” Johnson said.
For a few moments, it seemed the Nationals may actually make things easy on their new manager. In the second inning, Morse led off with a blast to right-center that may still be going, his 15th home run this season and another boost to his all-star candidacy. In the fourth, Zimmerman entered the game 9 for 54 in his first 12 games after returning from the disabled list. He singled in his first at-bat. In the fourth, he tucked the ball inside the left field foul pole, in the first row of seats. The ball traveled no more than 340 feet, but it served as Zimmerman’s second homer since coming back and gave the Nationals a 2-0 lead.
The Nationals, though, treat the opening innings as a means to build drama, not a comfortable lead. In the bottom of the fourth, Bobby Abreu and Vernon Wells led off with consecutive singles. After two outs, Alberto Callaspo dumped another single into left field.
Nix charged and fired a throw home at cutoff man Zimmerman. As Abreu lumbered around third, Nix’s throw bounced seven times before it reached catcher Wilson Ramos, allowing Abreu to slide in safely. Peter Bourjos followed with yet another RBI single, Wells scoring before Werth’s strong throw nailed Callaspo trying to take third base.
The rest of the night provided Johnson his fitting indoctrination into Nationals’ baseball, all gnashing teeth and sweating it out. To Johnson, it felt like he had never left.
“There’s nothing like it,” Johnson said. “It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I kind of like it.”