Johnson and his Nationals still held faint hope when they arrived Sunday at Nationals Park for a doubleheader. It evaporated early, before the second game even started. The Nationals lost to the Miami Marlins, 4-2, as the Cincinnati Reds throttled the Pirates in Pittsburgh. At night, in Stephen Strasburg’s return from forearm stiffness, the Nationals won, 5-4, when Chris Coghlan booted Wilson Ramos’s hard grounder to third and pinch runner Eury Perez scooted home for a walk-off victory.
As the Nationals came off the field, Johnson blew a kiss to the crowd. The Nationals had salvaged a split before a small but jovial crowd, but they had little optimism to cling to. As they headed to St. Louis, the Nationals sat five games out of playoff position, behind both the Pirates and Reds, with six to play.
“We ain’t finished,” Johnson said. “I take nothing for granted. I still think we got a good shot. We need to win ‘em all. Hey, I’ve been two runs down, one strike away. Don’t lose the faith.”
In Game 1, Dan Haren allowed two homers and three runs in six innings, and the Nationals could not touch right-hander Tom Koehler aside from Ryan Zimmerman’s two-run homer, his 26th. The Nationals’ loss clinched the National League East title for the Atlanta Braves. The Nationals are no longer the reigning division champions, and after Sunday afternoon’s sendoff to Johnson, it became clearer than ever they will spend October as spectators.
“I’m not good at math,” Zimmerman said. “But I’m good enough to figure it out.”
In Game 2, Strasburg pitched for the first time since Sept. 8 and showed rust. “He was awful, actually,” Johnson said. “Everything was up.” He allowed three runs in six innings on six hits and two walks, striking out six. Aside from Strasburg’s outing, Game 2 was all anti-climax. A crowd diminished by Saturday’s rain delay dotted Nationals Park. Trailing 3-2, the Nationals loaded the bases in the fourth inning with no outs and failed to score. Denard Span’s two-run single in the sixth put the Nationals ahead. Tyler Clippard gave back the lead in the eighth before Ramos’s one-hopper won it.
“You’re probably not going to have as good a feel on your pitches” after a layoff, Strasburg said. “Just go out there and be as effectively wild as you can.”
The Nationals had, in baseball parlance, slept fast. They left Nationals Park after 11 p.m. Saturday night after a rain delay of nearly four hours that led to Sunday’s doubleheader. Part of their clubhouse became a Par-3 chip-and-putt contest. Nobody won. They just kept playing. “It’s really tough to read these greens,” reliever Drew Storen said Sunday morning, pointing at the carpet. “A lot of sneaky breaks. Plus they just mowed them yesterday.”
When the Nationals returned Sunday, a moving truck was parked outside their clubhouse. Clubbies taped up cardboard boxes inside. On the final day of the home schedule, the Nationals honored Johnson with a ceremony, recognition Johnson said he may try to get out of by faking a bad back.
“It was fun for me,” Johnson said. “I was really moved by everything. It was really nicely done. It brought back a lot of old memories. It was fun seeing me in a Japanese uniform again. That was sweet.”
Johnson stood near home plate and watched the video tribute on the scoreboard. It started with a shot of Tinker Field, the field in Orlando where, as a young kid, he served as the Washington Senators’ spring training bat boy. It turned into a collage of messages from his coaching staff, his players and his old teammates. “Palmer and Booger,” he said afterward, referring to former Orioles teammates Jim Palmer and Boog Powell. “That was amazing.”
The Lerners gave him an engraved Tiffany crystal. Johnson’s most touching moment came when players poured from the dugout and lined up to hug him. Center fielder Denard Span asked him, “You’re not crying behind those shades, are you?”
“[Heck] no,” Johnson replied.
“I’m not the emotional type,” Span said later. “But I felt a little funny inside.”
At the end, Johnson doffed his cap to the standing, cheering crowd and hustled into the dugout. The ceremony had been wonderful, but he had a game to win.
“I felt like when it was over,” Johnson said, “I should go ahead and take my uniform off and go crawl in a hole somewhere.”
The good vibes dissipated. Haren imperiled the Nationals’ chances from the start. With two outs in the first, Christian Yelich ripped a double to right field. Haren ended an eight-pitch at-bat against Giancarlo Stanton with a 90-mph fastball. Stanton slammed it over the right field wall to give the Marlins a 2-0 lead, and the Nationals never recovered.
Haren knew he had likely made his final start as a National in Washington. As he exited, he advocated for the Nationals to keep their team together for next season, no matter the unfulfilled expectations of this one.
“I know there’ll be some subtle changes, me probably being one of them,” Haren said. “But I think the most important thing is to keep this group together. This could be a building block. Last year they had a great year. This year, we showed a lot of fight here these last few months, and I think as close as things can stay to the guys in this room, the better.”
The Nationals have still won 13 out of 16 games, and they have gone 30-12 since they bottomed out in early August. The Nationals’ rush to contention was commendable. It has not redeemed their wasted first four months, and with a week left, barring something more than a miracle, that will not change.
“We had to win pretty much every game going forward,” Haren said. “Which is really just a matter of the hole that we dug ourselves.”
The night became as much about posterity as competition. The Nationals announced a season attendance of 2,652,422, the most in Nationals Park’s brief history. Ian Desmond stole second in the seventh inning to join the 20-20 club — at least 20 steals and 20 homers —for the second straight year. After Jayson Werth sparked the final rally with a double, Johnson pulled him for a pinch runner, and Werth tipped his cap on his way off the field.
Johnson had managed his last game at Nationals Park. He would pack for the road, for the final week of his final season with the Nationals, another end coming on fast.