Boswell: Davey Johnson adds immediate confidence

Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 2, 2011

Baseball is a confidence game. The sport reeks with body language and animal territoriality. You can tell if a hitter is hot by the way he walks to the plate. Down to the tap of the spikes or the threatening practice swing, perhaps even pointing the bat toward the pitcher, there’s an assertion of authority or a lack of it. The hitter in a slump, like Jayson Werth, fidgets between pitches, cricks his neck and his back like his spine feels slightly misaligned. He might as well be the next patient to see the dentist. You can see insecurity in a reliever who enters and immediately makes pickoff throws at a runner who never steals; he’s praying for an easier out than dealing with that evil batter.

Confidence, or lack of it, is packed in every act of the game, from Livan Hernandez’s audacious slow curves to Ryan Zimmerman’s timid throwing motion to Michael Morse smashing himself on the helmet as he fast-trots a home run to Danny Espinosa’s gonna-get-you rips. And confidence can drain so low that once-star players become paralyzed by it. In Chicago, Adam Dunn is hitting .019 against lefties. That’s 1 for 53. The White Sox had him play golf with the team shrink this week. How’d that work out? “He’s actually real good, so that added more stress to my life, golfing with him,” Dunn said.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Davey Johnson handles game strategy, roster architecture and a pitching staff with the best. But his contagious confidence, and his ability to get his players to believe in what he sees in them, is the key to his remarkable success. He’s finished first or second in 11 of 13 seasons when he managed a team from opening day, including eight seasons over .555. How good’s that? Buck Showalter, a fine manager, has one full .550 season in 11.

Because Johnson is honest to a fault, almost incapable of avoiding a direct question to the point of getting himself pushed out of four jobs, his players know he’s giving it to them straight. His faith in players isn’t fake. So when he says, “Roger Bernadina deserves a chance to play every day and I’m going to give it to him,” that view won’t change soon.

In his first week, Johnson began showing the many facets of confidence as strategy, not just backing Bernadina but giving rookie Ryan Mattheus first shot at what he calls his “sixth starter” or long reliever role. Eventually, he’ll work his way to the team’s one vast elephant-in-the-room confidence catastrophe, Werth’s sub-.230 start and June mega-slump. Will this be seven years of Vernon Wells or Barry Zito, those other $126-million men?

Johnson loves Werth’s attitude, talent and pedigree. So, we, who know nothing, can fuss. Johnson’s in no rush; like he told his team, “You win games, I lose them.” He ticks off the names of his slumpers, says, “After I fix him, then I’ll fix him, then . . .” What? But think about it. With Davey, few words are an accident. If he doesn’t fix it after he said he could, then it’s his fault, too, not just the player. They’re both in the bull’s-eye.

But Johnson really can fix bats, boost egos. In a week, he’s proved it. At times the method is obvious; he gave (.148) Matt Stairs 11 at-bats in L.A. so his timing could get sharp enough, and his shattered faith at the plate fortified enough, to deliver a walk-off blast to the right-field wall on Friday night. Under Jim Riggleman, Stairs, 43, started three games — all season. He was treated like Werth’s bobo and semi-batting coach. Every at-bat, his posture said, “Is my career over?” In the first three Johnson games, Stairs started every one. Even hit cleanup. “Matt Stairs can hit rolling out of bed,” Johnson said. Stairs said, “I think I can still hit anybody’s fastball.” Well, now he thinks it again. Who knows, fixing Stairs may even do a tiny bit to help mend Werth, who’s felt for his old buddy.

But sometimes confidence is subtle, chess moves ahead, like telling Ian Desmond, “I wouldn’t normally do this but . . .” then explaining why Stairs would hit for him. Or making sure that reserve Brian Bixler knew he’d have played shortstop in the 10th if the Nats didn’t score, relying in a pinch on a player with one big-league appearance at shortstop the last two years. “I like Bixler,” Johnson said. He has a future off the bench. So, let him know. Maybe his MLB average (.187) trends toward his .283 in the minors.

Many in baseball talk about the 15 core players a good team needs: probably five starters, eight regulars, closer and setup man. Find ’em. “No, that’s wrong,” Johnson said. “It’s a 25-man game. Every player has to be able to help you win.”

Johnson isn’t touting his standouts; his mentor-nemesis Earl Weaver said, “My job is to manage the guys not named Robinson.” Instead, Davey is saying the Nats needed another lefty in the pen, that sixth starter and more power off the bench. “A big hairy-chested guy to sit [next] to me,” Johnson said. Why? “So, I have a team I wouldn’t want to manage against.”

Once Johnson builds a 25-man team he likes, where does it lead? It distributes pressure and lets cold stars, like a Werth, fret less. But it can also produces marvels. In ’97, Randy Johnson’s record was 20-1 against every team but Baltimore. Against Davey’s Orioles, The Big Unit was 0-5, with two playoff losses. The O’s scored 37 runs.

Johnson benched Raffy Palmeiro (38 homers), Roberto Alomar (.333) and B.J. Surhoff (88 RBI), and he put catcher Chris Hoiles at first. He started the righty bench he trusted: Jeff Reboulet, Lenny Webster, Jerome Walton, Geronimo Berroa, Tony Tarasco and Aaron Ledesma. Under orders to hunt fastballs, swing for the fences and ignore K’s, the O’s rattled Randy. In 32 innings the Unit fanned 47, but 52 O’s reached base and homers flew.

In a confidence game, the Nats have often been slump-shouldered since Frank Robinson left. Can Johnson provide as much leadership as he once did? It’s harder at 68. But at that age or older, since ’00, Felipe Alou, Bobby Cox, Jack McKeon and Joe Torre have all won more than 90 games with Trader Jack taking a Series at 72. Tony La Russa, Charlie Manuel and Jim Leyland are 66 or 67 and all in or near first place right now.

Where can Johnson take the Nats and for how long? Or will a team that’s next-to-last in hitting, with five regulars, including Werth and Zimmerman, hitting .235 or lower, be too big an anchor to drag? Those shoulders are back and heads high for now. Does it last?

Somewhere, Jeff Reboulet and Lenny Webster probably think they know the answer. That was then. We’re about to find out about now.

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