The Nats have also been winning the late-inning strategy battle when their bullpen door swings open. Johnson’s hand is in that, too, maximizing the value of his non-star players. Without 2011 closer Drew Storen, with free agent Brad Lidge cut and Henry Rodriguez often wild, the Nats still have a top-10 bullpen ERA because the Nats have gotten the most out of Craig Stammen (1.66 ERA),Ryan Mattheus (1.69) and Sean Burnett (1.82).
Johnson’s construction and use of his bench is just the latest element of a remarkable season. He has ignored having a dozen men on the disabled list at once. He has lobbied for Bryce Harper at 19 and been vindicated. He’s gotten a Rays pitcher suspended for eight games for cheating. The state of Florida has two major league teams. Johnson has called the manager of one “a weird wuss” and told the other to “get the [expletive] away from me.” He’s predicted his team would make the playoffs and then, last week, upped the ante by saying he’d be disappointed if the Nats weren’t NL East division champs.
Amid turmoil, like the endless talk about Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit, the Nats have seldom lost their focus or calm. On Tuesday, after getting to bed after a road trip at about 4:30 a.m., they still staged a comeback rally to tie when they were down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth, then another to win in the 10th. Veterans in the clubhouse have set their tone. But Johnson, by tone of voice, humor, wisdom or the proper choice of emphasis, has helped change a season that could have felt like a ride on the Titanic into a summer that’s as smooth as a Caribbean cruise.
It seems curious that Johnson’s baseball legacy is still so unfinished. He has the second-highest winning percentage of any living manager with more than six seasons experience, behind only Earl Weaver. Of all the men who have managed 1,000 games since 1900, only six have a better record than Johnson. All are in the Hall of Fame. The average Johnson team in his 16 years has gone 91-71. And he’s done it while taking over five different clubs, all of them mediocre to miserable when he got there. Counting the Nats, four became big winners.
So, it’s hard to believe Johnson’s talents aren’t fully appreciated. But they aren’t. He was out of the majors for 11 years, partly because of a period of very bad health, partly by choice, but also because the phone didn’t ring. He was great at handling players. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo says, “Davey is so good at handling players that most of them don’t know they’re being handled.” But who was going to handle Davey? Now, that no longer seems a problem.
Perhaps this last time around the track, with the Nationals, it will be the final performance that brings Johnson into clear focus. Beneath the grandfatherly appearance and the Texas twang, the harder you examine his latest work, the better his final baseball portrait looks.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/