Johnson Helps Nats To Finally Unload

Nationals Manager Manny Acta tells umpire Mike Everett that he believes Cristian Guzmán was safe at home.
Nationals Manager Manny Acta tells umpire Mike Everett that he believes Cristian Guzmán was safe at home. (By J. Pat Carter -- Associated Press)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008

MIAMI, April 18 -- There was no describing the feeling in the Washington Nationals' dugout Friday night, when they loaded the bases in a tight ballgame, when -- goodness, gracious, sakes alive -- one of their best hitters lashed at a pitch, hit it on a line, and it fell onto the grass, well out of the reach of any Florida Marlin. Suddenly there came a rare sight, three Nationals dashing home at once. And there was Nick Johnson, striding into second with -- gulp -- a game-changing, two-out three-run double.

"It's just like, 'Yeah!' " right fielder Austin Kearns said. "It's like, 'There it is!' "

And where, oh where, has that been? The Nationals beat the Marlins, 6-4, at Dolphin Stadium because Johnson delivered precisely the kind of hit his club had not been getting. Trailing by a run in the top of the seventh, he turned on a 3-2 fastball and drove it into the right field corner, scoring all three runs.

"You're fired up," Johnson said of his reaction, as he stood on second base.

For other teams, this might be no big deal. But Friday's result was the Nationals' second win in their last 14 games. The clubhouse was starting to show fissures. Hitters, by their own admission, were abandoning their game plans and, as Kearns said earlier in the week, "trying to hit a six-run homer." Over the past two weeks, the Nationals have lost blowouts and squeakers, with nary a hit like Johnson's in the mix. In 22 official at-bats with the bases loaded before Johnson came to the plate against lefty Taylor Tankersley, the Nationals had three hits, just one double. That one, from Kearns, came in the second game of the season.

"It's kind of like, you live in a cold place, and when you go out and start your car in the morning, you just keep turning it over, keep turning it over," said lefty Ray King, part of a bullpen that worked three scoreless frames. "And then, finally, you hear that engine start."

This is no well-oiled machine. But at some point, something like this had to happen. For a time Friday, it looked as if Washington wouldn't need such a clutch hit because right-hander Tim Redding set down the first nine Marlins he faced, struck out a career-high 10 batters and generally cruised through the first five innings. The Nationals even granted Redding a 3-0 lead in the first, their first inning of at least three runs since April 7 -- 81 frames earlier.

Redding, though, essentially made one bad pitch all night. After allowing Jeremy Hermida an RBI single, he started Josh Willingham with a fastball. "He's looking to do one thing right there, and that's hit a home run," Redding said. Because Redding's fastball tailed back over the plate, that's what Willingham did, and the Nationals trailed 4-3.

"Everybody thought, 'Here we go again,'" King said.

But if there's one player on the Nationals who might not fall into that trap, it could be Johnson, the left-handed hitting first baseman who played just his 17th game since missing all of 2007 with a broken right leg. When Johnson is staying back -- and not, as he says, "sliding," or allowing his weight to shift forward too soon -- he has an uncanny ability to recognize pitches.

"His eye at the plate is still one of the best in the league," Redding said, and Johnson's .415 on-base percentage shows it.

During the Nationals' slump, too many hitters -- particularly third-place hitter Ryan Zimmerman -- have swung at pitches out of the strike zone, becoming easy fodder. Indeed, the bases were loaded for Zimmerman, who hits in front of Johnson, in the seventh, and he squibbed a grounder to third. The Marlins got the force at the plate to keep the bases loaded, hold the game at 4-3, and further stump Zimmerman, who is now 1 for 21 with runners in scoring position.

So in that inning, it was left to Johnson. The Marlins called on Tankersley for the matchup, and he threw a nasty low fastball to get the count to 2-2. Then, in a strange way, came perhaps the key pitch of the night. Tankersley threw a fastball low and away, perhaps imperceptibly off the plate. Where a collection of jumpy hitters might have swung, Johnson took it. Ball three.

"Not that many guys, not only on our team, but a lot of teams," would take the pitch, Manager Manny Acta said. "He's the guy on our team that would do that. Hopefully, we can have some of the younger guys emulate him and be able to lay off some of those pitches, because that's a tough pitch to lay off -- 2-2, with the bases loaded. But that's him."

That is, right now, very few hitters on the Nationals. King has faced Johnson in the past, and he knows that, "If you make a mistake, he's going to hit the long ball. But at 2-2, he's recognizing. He loves to play let-it-go. So then he gets to that 3-2 count, and the guy has to come into the zone."

That's what Tankersley did. Johnson drove the ball to right field. All three runners, taking off on the pitch, scored easily. Perhaps it was relief in the dugout. Perhaps it was elation. As Redding said, "Any win's a big win," and because Luis Ayala, King and closer-for-now Jon Rauch protected the advantage, Johnson's hit was the difference.

"The kids, I know that a lot of them are trying to do some extra stuff, getting out of their game a little bit, trying to do too much to win the ballgame," Acta said. In one at-bat, Johnson did exactly what he always tries to do. That's what won a ballgame.

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