Dan Haren detected an ulterior motive. For days, Davey Johnson had spread word around the Nationals’ clubhouse. He wanted them to keep winning and keep playing hard so his career managerial record would finish at least 300 games above .500. Johnson became attached to a milestone no one else had ever before considered. Haren was not so sure.
“Honestly, I think he was using it just as a motivation,” Haren said. “I don’t think we played very good in St. Louis, and he didn’t want us going out and losing six in a row just because we got knocked out of the race. I don’t know if he really cares about it that much, but it’s a pretty cool accomplishment. We wanted to win the games and we’re playing our starters out there. So, tomorrow, I don’t know, but at least we got it for him today. I know he had his ‘Win one for the Gipper’ thing yesterday. So I guess we won two for the Gipper.”
After Chad Tracy’s solo homer and Haren’s seven scoreless innings lifted the Nationals’ 2-0 victory over the Diamondbacks, Johnson can finish his managerial with no worse than a 1,372-1,071 record. He will become the 15th manager in baseball history to reach that benchmark.
It seemed like an idiosyncratic mark, but Johnson insisted it mattered deeply to him. Afterward, Johnson walked into the Nationals’ clubhouse to applause from the players. He thanked them all for their effort this season. He walked around the room and hugged them. Somebody gave him a bottle of wine.
“Those guys are great,” Johnson said. “I think they were feeling it as much as I was, and that was wonderful. The effort was outstanding, and I can’t even put words on it. Tomorrow I’m gonna play the young guys and some of the guys, their seasons are finished. They battled hard. I really thanked them a lot for all the effort. And I know they’re in a good place going forward. I feel good about it.”
Tomorrow, Johnson will manage the last game of a baseball career that began 50 years ago. Johnson has been an emotional “wet rag,” he said, since the Nationals’ tribute to him last week at Nationals Park. “I’m cooked,” he said. The baseball season, like life, can sometimes be about finding meaning. He found meaning in his little milestone.
“The organization’s going to miss him,” Haren said. “I’m going to miss him. The guy is so personable and just fun to talk to, on the plane, coming back on the plane just to talk to him for a few minutes. Really funny guy. He’s meant a lot to the game of baseball.”
The Nationals, even as some took a while to grasp what exactly Johnson wanted out of them, rallied around him. Last week, Johnson was looking over the game notes written by Nationals PR man John Dever. He noticed he was 303 games over .500, and the appeal of a round number struck him.
“It’d be nice to have that number,” Johnson said. “So that’s why I was pushing them. I even told Desi and a a couple guys, ‘I’d like to have 300 over the loss column.’ So they were all grinding. They didn’t do too good of a job in St. Louis, but they did great in Arizona.”
No one did better Friday than Haren. He finished his season, and almost certainly his Nationals tenure, by allowing no runs over seven innings on four hits. The start continued his terrific finish. Haren had a nightmarish first two months. But in 15 starts after he went on the “phantom” disabled list (his word) in June, Haren punched up a 3.29 ERA.
“I can’t believe that it’s over,” Haren said. “It seems like yesterday I was flying to D.C. and getting a tour of the facility with [Mike Rizzo]. Here we are 10 months later, and I’ll probably take off the Nats uniform for the last time tomorrow. It happened fast. Things go quick. Sad, a little bit.”
“I was on the DL for a little while, but it was fake,” Haren added. “Physically I felt fine, but the mental side of it just crushed me this year. I’m happy with the way I finished up, but I’ll still always have that guilt of the way it started and the expectations that were not met for the team.”
Haren reiterated his belief he will not return to the Nationals next season. But he had a positive outlook for the teammates he’ll leave behind.
“Obviously, team-wise, we just didn’t meet our expectations,” Haren said. “I think overall this team built a lot of character this year. I know I probably won’t be a part of it next year, but we’re going to be – the Nationals will be a scary team next year. Nobody wanted to play us this year. If we got in, we’d be the team to beat. The talent is there for next year and this organization is in a good place.”
Friday night, Haren received support from Tracy. Because Adam LaRoche came down with biceps tendinitis, Tracy received just his fourth start in the past three months. Tracy went 2 for 3 and banged a homer that almost landed in Chase Field’s pool.
“It’s tough getting one at-bat off the closer every third or fourth night,” Tracy said. “It’s tough. You guys have never been in the box against a closer in the ninth with the game on the line, with no at-bats in two or three days. You’re going to try to battle and put the ball in the play and put it on the barrel. You get to string a few at-bats together, you get a little timing, you get to see pitches. That’s just the way the game is.”
With Johnson having secured his milestone, he called off the dogs for the season finale. Earlier in the day, Johnson had named Gio Gonzalez his starter. Now, he’ll give the final start of 2013 to Tanner Roark. He also posted his full lineup. The only regular starter in there is Jayson Werth. Just a pure guess as to why: Werth is entering the finale with a .398 on-base percentage, and he can bump it to an even .400.
Here’s the lineup for Davey’s last day.
1. Jeff Kobernus, LF
2. Antony Rendon, 3B
3. Jayson Werth, RF
4. Tyler Moore, 1B
5. Zach Walters, SS
6. Steve Lombardozzi, 2B
7. Eury Perez, CF
8. Jhonatan Solano, C
9. Tanner Roark, SP