One reason the Nats are in contact with the Braves, despite playing, in Johnson’s words, “below our potential” for three months, is his gift of casual authority. He handles players firmly, without seeming to do anything. But he is.
On Friday, after Harper had gone 0 for 18, dropped two balls in left field, swung over-anxiously at first pitches and “showed bad body language,” Johnson benched Harper “for the weekend.” That’s not what he called it. Davey peddled some nonsense about Harper’s knee and state of mind, just as he always covers for players. But that’s what it was. Harper’s text was essentially a plea, which might be paraphrased as, “Skip, I just sat out 31 games on the disabled list. Come on, I wanna play. I’ll shape up, honest!”
Yet because Harper knew he could text “play me or trade me” — usually the final ultimatum in a totally broke relationship — everything stayed in good humor, just big-time baseball guys ribbing each other, working things out. Johnson volunteered the text story himself. Harper never mentioned it.
During the meeting, Johnson got to tell Harper that he was listening to too many “extraneous voices” and should ignore all those who wanted him to change his style of play, to play it safe. “He’s going to run into another wall and slide headfirst,” Johnson said. “That’s who he is. He can’t let other people affect how he feels and how he plays. Let all the well-meaning advice go in one ear and out the other, unless he thinks it’ll help him.”
With his points made, the air cleared and Harper reinvigorated, Johnson told the media with a grin, “I can’t trade him so I’m playing him.”
The cold arithmetic that sabermetrics believes and Johnson understands says that the Nats are dumb-lucky that they aren’t about 11 games behind the Braves, who have a plus-76 run differential while the Nats are a lousy minus-10. The Nats should be an inch from dead instead of four games back.
Johnson, who’s had other teams that defied that metric, is part of why the Nats haven’t sunk under their misfortunes and mistakes.
“You have to ride it out and not lose faith,” said Johnson, who has looked so miserable on the bench much of the season that he seems to have internalized the misery for everyone else. “Now we are coming around . . . I feel good going into the second half. We should be ready for it.”
More Psych 101?
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.