By Tuesday afternoon, Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson felt back to his usual self. The pain in his back had dissipated. He replaced the air conditioning at his home in Winter Park, Fla. He planned to play golf Wednesday. “I’m fine,” Johnson said.
Johnson, 69, also remained true to his defiant nature. Second-guess him if you want; he couldn’t care less. In a phone conversation Tuesday, Johnson defended his decisions in the Nationals’ collapse against the St. Louis Cardinals in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series. He also said he wants to return next season, motivated to complete what he started this season.
“If we’d have won a World Series, I might have pulled a La Russa,” Johnson said, referring to Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa’s retirement after winning the title in 2011. “I think I’ve accomplished what was needed to this point. Is there some unfinished business? Yeah, there’s some unfinished business. But that’ll be up to ownership. That ball is in their court. I don’t have a bad feeling, and I don’t mind waiting until November like last year.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson returned a reporter’s phone message. At the end of the conversation, after answering questions about decisions from Game 5, Johnson said, “If I knew you were going to second-guess me, I would have called back sooner.”
“Let me tell you something,” Johnson said. “Any manager in baseball, they will tell you, if you can get to your closer with a lead, you’ve done good. I don’t give a rat’s [behind] what anybody else thinks. If it’s a one-run lead, a two-run lead, you did it.
“One thing, in all the years I’ve been managing, if I think about all the options I have in every minute of that game, I never second-guess myself. Anytime you get to your setup guy and your closer, you get a lead with your closer in there, you’re good to go.”
Two of Johnson’s decisions drew the most debate. In the seventh inning, Johnson chose Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson over reliever Ryan Mattheus, his typical setup man against a right-handed lineup. Jackson had been battered in Game 3, the first inning was his worst this year and in his career he owned a 5.70 career ERA as a reliever.
But Johnson believed Jackson would have better stuff than Mattheus. He also thought Jackson had a strong history against the top three hitters in the lineup, whom he would be facing. Jon Jay was 2 for 8 against him, Carlos Beltran was 2 for 9 with three walks and Matt Holliday was 7 for 23 with a walk and a homer.
“I thought that he was good to go through the heart of the lineup, he was the best choice,” Johnson said. “I value starters’ stuff over a reliever’s stuff. He gave up one run. He struck out two guys. He did the job.
“Of the guys that I think, at the time we had a three-run lead, I’ve got Jackson on his throw day and he’s nasty, him facing [the top of the lineup], that’s what I want. He’s nasty on the middle of the lineup. He did his job. Just like [Jordan Zimmermann the day before]. All things considered, it was the right time for him.”
Johnson also drew second-guesses for not walking shortstop Pete Kozma with two runners on base in the ninth inning and score tied at 7. Because closer Jason Motte stood on deck, Johnson could have at least ensured the Cardinals would get Motte out of the game for extra innings. The Cardinals also had only one position player remaining in reserve — backup catcher Tony Cruz, a career .257 hitter in less than 200 at-bats.
Johnson said he considered walking Kozma. In the end, he believed his best chance was with letting Drew Storen — who had allowed two runs in his previous 24 innings — face the Cardinals’ No. 8 hitter rather than walking the bases loaded and potentially letting a walk force in the go-ahead run. Johnson said Storen had simply put the game in question when he walked Yadier Molina and David Freese with two outs.
“If it’s right-on-right and we can’t get out the eight-hole hitter . . .” Johnson said. “Do I want to put him in a situation where he faces Cruz? I could have done that. But I wanted to give him the opportunity to make pitchers’ pitches, which I do all year. But unfortunately, early in the count, he gave up a hit to right. . . . Here’s my closer, who’s death on right-handers, and he’s got a base open. He didn’t execute.
“You load the bases, you get their closer out. But you also make him have to make sure he doesn’t walk him. The only lack-of-experience thing was being too cautious with the catcher and Freese. That’s where we lost the game.”
Johnson felt Nationals pitchers all night had walked too many hitters, which in his mind continued a trend down the stretch of the season.
“I don’t know why, it seemed like the last two weeks of the season, we started walking more guys,” Johnson said. “I don’t know the reason why. I don’t know if it’s inexperience or what. Do I have any remorse about any of my decisions? No. I wouldn’t.”
Despite the bitter finish, Johnson did not want to let the Nationals’ accomplishments — a 98-win season and an NL East title — go unnoticed.
“I was not happy with how it finished out,” Johnson said. “I told the guys after the game, I said I’m proud of them, period. I talked to Storen: ‘Don’t beat yourself up too bad.’ ”
Johnson wants to return next season, a topic he and General Manger Mike Rizzo have already discussed. The decision will ultimately come down to approval by ownership, he said. Johnson is under contract with the Nationals as an advisor for next year, but his contract would have to be reworked for him to come back as the manager. Rizzo has said he wants Johnson back, and so barring unforeseen intervention from ownership, Johnson should return.
“It’s really up to the ownership and the general manager,” Johnson said. “I’m still not under contract [for next year]. We’re not there. So, yeah, I have some unfinished business. I’d like to be back. They haven’t asked me my opinion. But I have a good relationship with Rizzo and we’ve talked about if I come back, we’ve had some discussion on the coaching staff and players. I don’t have a contract. I guess when they get around to it, they’ll get around to it.”
Until then, Johnson will not question himself or what led to the final, bitter loss of the season. He will wake up Wednesday morning at peace with himself, and when he pushes the day’s first tee into the ground, Johnson will have no regrets.