“I wanted to let them know that I’m with them 100 percent,” Johnson said. “I know we’re going to get better as the season goes on. And I appreciate the effort they’ve given so far. And that I don’t fall victim to the new era of tweeting and Facebook and all the comments and all the help that sometimes people want to give you about managing your ballclub. I wanted to put them at ease that I have confidence in everyone on this ballclub, or else they wouldn’t be here. I expect us to get it right.”
Watching his team the past two games, Johnson sensed hitters trying to do too much to fill the void left by injuries Michael Morse and Jayson Werth. Last night, the Nationals had the bases loaded with one out in the eighth inning, then men on second and third with one out in the ninth. The four critical at-bats produced three swinging strikeouts and a pop-up.
“The guys try to too much,” Johnson said. “They try to hit the ball too hard. They try to make up for the lack of power we have in the lineup. And I don’t want that. We’re not that kind of ballclub. Everybody’s different. But all of the guys have the capability to be a good hitter. I’m confident in the pitching staff on pitching and not overthrowing. Basically I just wanted to let them know that I’m with them, I’m behind them 100 percent.”
Johnson spoke one-on-one with several players before the meeting, most notably Danny Espinosa. The second baseman snapped an 0-for-10 slump last night with a double, but he later struck out with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth inning with the Nationals trailing by a run. Espinosa is hitting .189/.281/.245 with 39 strikeouts, most in the National League.
Even with Steve Lombardozzi on the bench, Johnson has stuck with Espinosa. Today, Johnson offered Espinosa a day off, but Espinosa turned it down, and Johnson put him at second base, batting sixth behind Bryce Harper.
“The most important guy right now in this lineup is Danny Espinosa,” Johnson said. “And I had a conversation with him today about, ‘Let me rest you. Lombo would certainly enjoy the opportunity to go out there and play second base.’ But he said, ‘I feel better. I’ve been a little confused.’ I had a great conversation with him and I said nothing more than ‘I’ll give you every opportunity to do the things you’re capable of, because we need you.’ ”
Johnson pointed out two at-bats as most symptomatic of the Nationals’ tendency to press at the plate. Catcher Wilson Ramos led off the ninth inning by taking two fastballs by Joel Hanrahan that went all the way to the backstop behind home plate. Ahead in the count 2-0, against a pitcher clearly struggling, Ramos fouled off the next pitch, then grounded out to shortstop.
Later in the inning, with two runners in scoring position and one out, Harper swung at two pitches out of the strike zone to fall behind, 0-2, and then he popped out to short.
“My job is to make sure these guys don’t feel a whole lot of pressure and a whole lot of outside heat from anything,” Johnson said. “I know we have the talent level here to compete and win our division. Stay within yourself. Be a good hitter. Get strikes to hit. Get something to drive. You don’t have to hit it out of the ballpark. If they don’t give it to you, there’s a guy behind you.”
Johnson also used the meeting to reiterate his stance of sticking to one lineup, not jostling players in and out based on streaks and slumps.
“I’m not a manager that auditions players,” Johnson said. “That’s sportswriters and maybe fans. If a guy doesn’t have a good day, maybe they try somebody else. And if they have a good day, you stick with them. I judge talent. And I know who I want to get going. I know who’s important. They’re all important. Twenty-five guys have to get going to win a pennant.”
“It probably wasn’t needed,” Johnson added of calling the meeting. “But I just kind of wanted to let a little air out of the bubble. Maybe it was more for me than them. But it’s also I’ve got some new guys on this ballclub and I wanted to let them know that I don’t manage by audition and I don’t panic and I don’t take a lot of advice from people that don’t know a whole lot. I do read blogs and Tweeter and fans and the newspaper and also on the Internet. I’m not immune to it, and I know these guys do it 100 times more than me.
“I’m not saying there’s not always some good advice in there. But you’re dealing with people that have feelings and you’re also dealing with people that have a lot of pride. And also I want to be consistent with opportunities. The more you play, the more opportunities you get. It’s kind of simple with me. One day doesn’t necessarily make a winning streak. And a couple oh-fers doesn’t necessarily mean a slump.”
This much I know: Johnson has a veteran’s touch for timing his meetings — he called this one a couple hours before Stephen Strasburg faced the lowest-scoring offense in the majors.