“I don’t have to say that to players,” Johnson said. “I play ‘em.”
And so Johnson showed Rodriguez, and the rest of the world, his confidence in Rodriguez on Wednesday night. With the Nationals ahead by 7-4 in the ninth, a save situation, Johnson summoned Rodriguez from the bullpen. As Rodriguez threw his first pitch, though, Ryan Mattheus started warming up.
“I just had him up throwing for you guys,” Johnson said to reporters. “So you guys wouldn’t get real nervous.”
Rodriguez induced a leadoff groundball, and “my heart sank,” Johnson said. But he struck out the next batter, Clint Barmes, and got Josh Harrison to hit into a game-ending double play. Johnson’s faith had been rewarded. Rodriguez had bounced back and, with 99- and 98-mph fastballs, showed what a weapon he is, why Johnson has stuck by him, careful not to ruin his confidence.
“The only one who can hurt Henry is himself,” starter Gio Gonzalez aptly put it.
Johnson’s handling of Rodriguez offered insight into his managing style. He made a decision that Rodriguez is best-suited for the closer’s role, and a few bad games — no matter how ugly — would change his evaluation. He stuck by Rodriguez, but, as Mattheus warming up showed, not to the detriment of the other 24 players in the clubhouse.
“I didn’t want him to blow the save,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want that even to be a factor. He was throwing good. I was pretty relaxed over there considering all the questions I’ve been getting.”
Johnson had answered all those questions with utmost confidence in Rodriguez. But he knew it would not have mattered what he said if his actions did not support his words.
“It doesn’t matter what I say to them, either beforehand or whatever,” Johnson said. “I called his name. He knows that I’m calling on him because I’ve got confidence in him. It’s that simple. Every time you put a guy’s name in the lineup, they know you’ve got confidence in him. Sometimes, it’s harder when you’re managing, because you know what you expect out of them, and you know you’re going to get it, but you’ve got to stay with them. That goes for every player, not just the closer.”
Every closer, inevitably, unless he is Mariano Rivera, endures his first rough patch. Drew Storen said he still considers the walk-off home run Jayson Werth hit off him in 2010 as a valuable lesson, “one of the best things that ever happened to me.” He said Rodriguez can learn the same lesson.
“For me, I tried to go out and do too much,” Storen said. “So I learned to minimize the game a lot. It is different than the seventh and eighth inning, but your approach shouldn’t be. It’s just one of those things that — you can’t close in spring training. You can’t do it anywhere else. The only way you learn to close is to close in the big leagues in the biggest spots, and I think that’s one of the things that he’s learning.”
And, without a doubt, he is still the Nationals’ closer.
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Columbus 6, Syracuse 2: John Lannan allowed six runs in six innings on 11 hits and four walks, striking out one. Carlos Rivero went 2 for 4. Xavier Paul went 1 for 2 with a double and two walks.
Harrisburg 3, Richmond 1: Eury Perez went 4 for 5 with two doubles. Jeff Mandel allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings on three hits and four walks, striking out three.
Potomac 5, Frederick 4: Rick Hague went 3 for 3 with a home run. David Freitas went 1 for 3 with a double. Robbie Ray allowed four runs in six innings on seven hits and no walks, striking out none.
Potomac 4, Frederick 3: Blake Kelso went 3 for 5 with a double. Matt Swynenberg allowed three runs in five innings on seven hits and two walks, striking out four.