Johnson Doesn't Take Easy Way Out

tony armas jr. - washington nationals
Tony Armas Jr. (4-2) dominates a team that scored 14 runs while winning the first two games of the series. He surrenders just three singles while striking out six and works out of a bases-loaded jam in the third. (John Bazemore - AP)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006

ATLANTA, May 14 -- On a sunny Sunday afternoon in front of a large Mother's Day crowd, with four losses in a row behind him, Nick Johnson could have hit his ground ball to first base and jogged down the line to end the inning quietly. No one would have noticed, and the Washington Nationals would have been retired in the top of the fifth inning, an inconsequential development.

Atlanta Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche scooped up Johnson's slow roller. Except when LaRoche turned his back and began to saunter to first, Johnson shifted into a downright sprint. He is no Justin Gatlin, mind you, but he sneaked up behind an unsuspecting LaRoche and barely beat him to the bag to put runners on first and second with two outs.

So much has gone wrong for the Nationals in these first six weeks of the season that maybe it was time for something -- anything -- to go right. And here it was, some hustle that was rewarded. The Nationals went on to score four runs in the inning, and they snapped that four-game losing streak behind Tony Armas Jr.'s seven scoreless innings, leading to an 8-1 blowout of the Braves, a win that felt therapeutic.

"It's good to get up off the floor," Manager Frank Robinson said.

That's precisely where the Nationals found themselves after devastating losses to Cincinnati on Thursday and Atlanta on Saturday night, each after they held a multi-run lead and needed just three outs to win.

Each ended on a walk-off homer against them.

Given that environment, Johnson might have lollygagged through the motions, because that wouldn't make him any different from most Nationals' base runners in such a situation, two outs in an inning that seemed to be over. Johnson said he had no sense that such a play -- slowing down to prevent LaRoche from coming to tag him, then speeding up once LaRoche's back was turned -- could start something. He just has a simple philosophy.

"Play the game the way it's supposed to be played," he said. "Just run hard."

Not to get trite, but it's the kind of thing taught on Little League fields each and every day. These, though, are major leaguers. They don't always do those things.

"Really, he's the only guy here who would pull that play off there, or put pressure on LaRoche, period," Robinson said. "That's the way he does it. He runs hard, the same all the time."

Braves Manager Bobby Cox, who thought Johnson was out, was eventually tossed for arguing. But he said afterward, "The umpire and the player [LaRoche] were wrong."

"As soon as that happened," said the next man up, Jose Guillen, "you know something weird is going to happen to the other team. That's the first thing that came to my mind."

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