By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006
PHILADELPHIA, April 20 -- Nick Johnson's manager knows something about hitting, and that means he knows something about the feeling Johnson must have right now.
"He's really locked in," Frank Robinson said. "He's hitting the ball to all fields, and he's hitting the ball hard."
Johnson's teammates watch him, too. They watched his 4-for-4 performance Thursday night, the one in which he hit two home runs and a double to lift the Washington Nationals to a 10-4 thumping of the Philadelphia Phillies. They watch, and they marvel.
"If he's healthy, I'm not saying he's going to hit .400," catcher Brian Schneider said, noting Johnson's average at this point. "But he's going to hit the ball hard, and he's going to do a lot of damage."
And what does Johnson say?
"The last two weeks," he said, "it's been off and on, getting the hits. But nothing really feels comfortable."
Apparently, the fact that he completed the Nationals' six-game road trip with 11 hits in 22 at-bats, the fact that he reached base at an astonishing .655 clip, means very little. It was, perhaps, the most important part of a successful trek, in which the Nationals took two of three from the Florida Marlins, then two of three at Citizens Bank Park and finally headed to RFK Stadium for their first six-game homestand of the season with some momentum.
"It's early," Johnson said. "You got to keep playing, keep playing hard."
We'll get back to Johnson, for there were other important aspects of this win, not the least of which was the fact that it was Robinson's 1,000th in the majors, an accomplishment that took more than 15 seasons and had him accepting a new putter and a round of applause from his team in the clubhouse, where the champagne flowed after the game.
"I appreciate the guys' thoughts," said Robinson, a paper cup of bubbly in his hand. "I'll tell you one thing, though. They didn't have it iced down, so they weren't sure."
In some ways, though, Robinson's milestone was the second-most significant of the night. In the back corner of the clubhouse, a 26-year-old left-hander named Billy Traber pulled on his dress slacks and slicked back his dark hair, a calm, stoic celebration of his first major league win in nearly three years.
Traber was recalled from Class AAA New Orleans the previous day, and he walked into the clubhouse for the first time at 4:30 p.m. Schneider, his catcher, had never worked with him before, so the pair spent about 20 minutes going over everything.
"I didn't even know what pitches he threw," Schneider said.
As it turns out, Traber throws an array of off-speed pitches that are set up off his fastball, which isn't overpowering and doesn't have to be. Traber, a former top prospect with the New York Mets who was traded to Cleveland in the Roberto Alomar deal, has been through enough that he has had to learn how to deal with different problems and setbacks, most notably elbow reconstructive surgery that wiped out his entire 2004 season. To be back in the majors, it would seem, would be emotional. Not so, he said.
"I have a different perspective on things now," Traber said. "As long as I'm pitching somewhere, I'm going to be happy."
He couldn't get much happier than when he was spotted a 5-0 lead in the first, one spurred not only by Ryan Zimmerman's two-run double but by a two-out, RBI single from Traber himself, his first major league hit. He gave up a two-run double in the first to Pat Burrell and another two-run double in the third to Chase Utley, but those were the only scratches in his outing, which lasted 5 2/3 innings and was enough for his first win since Aug. 7, 2003, when he beat Seattle while pitching for the Indians.
Traber's assessment, "Too many walks." Robinson countered him. "What I saw tonight," said the manager, "is good enough to be successful up here."
That's important, because with Ryan Drese and Pedro Astacio both on the disabled list for the foreseeable future, Traber will remain in the rotation.
Johnson, too, will remain at first base, and, as he says constantly, he will "keep grinding." He hit a two-run shot off Phillies starter Ryan Madson in the second, a double off Aaron Fultz in the third, a solo shot off Geoff Geary in the fifth and a single off Geary in the eighth. The four hits tied a career high, and when you throw in a walk in the first, he reached base all five times he appeared at the plate.
"The guy's got an incredible eye," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "He always seems to be in 3-1 counts, 2-0 counts, good hitter's counts. That's something I'm trying to work on, seeing more pitches, and he does that already."
Johnson may not feel locked in, but the numbers belie that argument. Since going 0 for 4 against the Mets on April 12, he has reached base 22 times in his last 33 plate appearances.
Yet when he talks about his performances, he speaks largely in platitudes. "Tonight was a good night," he said. Schneider, listening in and mocking him out at the same time, smiled in the background. Johnson's nickname is "Slick" -- it's stitched on his glove, the name of his basset hound, the way he fields. But where did it come from?
"I don't know," he said. "I can't help you there. I think it was from Terrmel Sledge," the former Nationals outfielder.
Whatever. What matters to the Nationals is that Johnson's numbers indicate he is locked in, they may have found a reliable left-handed starter for the first time in their brief history -- and they are coming home to Washington playing good baseball.