Davey Johnson arrived early at PNC Park today, unable to shake his queasiness over the Nationals’ 14-strikeout performance last night. He walked into the batting cage next door the Nationals’ clubhouse and found hitting coach Rick Eckstein working with another coach. Johnson asked for a bat.
With no one watching aside from the coach tossing him pitches, Johnson hit. He swung until a blister formed on his left hand, about 40 hacks. He had not taken so much batting practice, he figured, in about 25 years.
“I wanted to see if it was that hard to still hit a baseball,” Johnson said.
A few hours later, Johnson did something else he rarely does in order to calm himself. He called a team meeting, gathering Nationals players before batting practice and addressing them for 15 minutes. Johnson did not berate or upbraid the Nationals. One player said, “It was nothing big.”
“It was probably more for me, so I feel like I’m doing something,” Johnson said.
Johnson prefers one-on-one conversation to team-wide talks; last season, he only called two, and in one he only said he just wanted to shoo reporters from the clubhouse. Johnson had no one clear message today. With the Nationals hovering at 15-15 following widespread preseason World Series predictions, he let players know he blamed himself for them not fulfilling their potential.
“Don’t try to do too much,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to strike out, let’s go down swinging. Or something like that. Not a whole lot. But, you know, across the board, we’re not playing up to our potential. I take that more personally, because my job is to put them in positions where they’re going to succeed. If they’re not succeeding, am I doing something wrong? Are the coaches doing something wrong? Are you listening to what all these writers are writing? What are you doing? Just trying to clear the air, make it simpler. Let’s keep having fun. Let’s do the things we’re capable of doing.”
Before and after the meeting, Johnson ambled around the room and shared individual discussions with certain players. He chatted about base-running mistakes. (“I told them I understand why we made a few base-running errors,” Johnson said. “We ain’t on base that much.”) He told several relievers, including Drew Storen, that roles in the bullpen had not shaken out exactly as he hoped, and he asked them how much it affected them when they warmed up but never made it into the game.
“Mostly, it was to let them know where I’m coming from, and for them to be aware that I understand what they’re dealing with,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t that I was chastising everybody, because I know the makeup and I know the effort we’re getting. If anything, we might be putting more pressure on ourselves than we should.”
Last year, the Nationals sent Stephen Strasburg to the mound as they played the Pirates in Pittsburgh for their 31st game. The Nationals had lost four of 12 before that day, and Johnson called one of his two meetings all year. The circumstances today – Pittsburgh, Strasburg, Game 31 – are identical.
“I had no idea,” Johnson said. “That never entered my mind. Maybe after 30 games, it’s somewhere deep down in my subconscious – I got to have a meeting.”
After last year’s meeting in Pittsburgh, Strasburg struck out 13 in a 4-2 victory, and the Nationals went 20-11 in their next 31 games. What happens today and in the weeks to come remains to be seen. In the immediate aftermath, as he nursed a blister and sore legs, Johnson was happy he wouldn’t soon call another meeting.
“I just wanted them to be aware that, even though I’m kind of quiet, kind of patient, that I was looking in the mirror and trying to make sure I wasn’t leaving any stone unturned as far as the pulse of this ball club,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how the meeting went. I’m glad it’s over with. I like watching this club play baseball. I like the effort. I like the talent. I like them individually.
“More key guys are struggling a little bit. But we know we’re not going to keep struggling.”