Nationals 2, Athletics 1
He comes to the ballpark with two thoughts: See the ball, hit the ball. At this point, why would he alter them, even slightly?
"I feel pretty good," Nick Johnson said last night, the definition of understated. Consider how he spoke about last night's game, when he went 2 for 3 with a double, a walk and the decisive two-run homer, and picked out an essential double-play ball -- all the elements the Washington Nationals needed in a 2-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics.
"Just got to keep grinding every at-bat," Johnson said. "Just keep doing my work that I've been doing, and try to execute when I go to home plate."
Johnson is sending those simple messages to the rest of the Nationals, who have won five straight and eight of nine, and have reached a season-high six games over .500. Thus, this torrid homestand continued behind Johnson's torrid hitting, and the Nationals -- to the joy of 26,879 at RFK Stadium -- remained in first place, leading the National League East by a game over Atlanta and the New York Mets.
"We've just got to keep doing what we're doing," Johnson said.
Johnson would be well-served to take his own advice. The homer, his eighth this year, came in the sixth off A's left-hander Barry Zito. Tony Armas Jr. pitched fairly well to that point for the Nationals, overcoming three walks to hold the A's to a single run. Zito, who had stifled Washington, walked Jose Guillen on four pitches to start the inning.
That brought up Johnson. Zito, just trying to get in the strike zone, fired a fastball on the first pitch.
"I was geared up for it," Johnson allowed.
He sent it on a line toward right-center, and it sailed over the wall to the left of the 380-foot mark, where precious few homers have been hit this season. The swing showed his power potential. But so many other things go into his season, his personality.
Johnson leads the Nationals in batting average (.338), on-base percentage (.458), slugging percentage (.552), runs (31), hits (68) and RBI (35). He is so focused at trying to reach base -- any way, anyhow -- that after the homer, he bunted in his final at-bat. He has been especially hot during this homestand, going 14 for 25.
"I don't know if it's a groove," catcher Gary Bennett said, "or that's just him."
One key to Johnson's success is his health, which has been impeccable, a contrast to the past five seasons, when he spent time on the disabled list. He is also the one National who has been in this position -- leading a division, playing in the spotlight -- for he came from the New York Yankees, where he appeared in the 2003 World Series.
"I think a lot of the things he's so blase about is because of what he went through before he came here," Bennett said. "What's going to shock him? He's played on the biggest stage."
The basis for the start to this season began in spring training, when he worked hard with hitting coach Tom McCraw to eliminate movement in his swing.
"Just trying to keep it simple," Johnson said.
"Each day, he looks a lot more comfortable up there, and a lot better," Manager Frank Robinson said. "He just keeps rolling."
The win wasn't ensured until the Nationals' bullpen performed its typical high-wire act. Gary Majewski allowed two runners in the seventh, but pitched out of it. Lefty C.J. Nitkowski -- who is pitching for his job -- allowed a walk and a hit in the eighth before Luis Ayala came in to face Bobby Crosby, the tying run on second.
Enter Johnson again.
"When you got a first baseman like Nick, you know you can throw it anywhere," shortstop Cristian Guzman said. "In the dirt. High. It's okay, because we know he's going to get it."
Crosby promptly hit a ball sharply at Guzman, who tossed it to Jamey Carroll for one out at second. Carroll's throw, though, threatened to skip past Johnson, allowing the tying run to score. But no. Calmly, effortlessly, Johnson scooped the ball out of the dirt, saving the day.
Afterward, his job done, Johnson quietly slipped into a white T-shirt, khaki shorts and untied sneakers. Another day, another task performed. Simple as that.