Johnson in prime position to lead Nats' surge
There never has been any doubt about Mike Rizzo's ability to evaluate baseball talent. The Nationals' general manager earned his stripes as one of the game's best in the area of scouting and player development with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
That said, one of Rizzo's most important decisions was making Davey Johnson the team's manager when Jim Riggleman unexpectedly resigned last June 23.
Talk about Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth and so on, but the Nationals' most important team might be the Rizzo-Johnson duo.
There's renewed enthusiasm this spring at Nationals Park, with the National League East's perennial also-ran sitting in first place. That's the same team which lost 81 games last year and hasn't had a winning season since George Washington was president.
That's really a stretch, but it seems that long.
Strasburg, who heads the very capable rotation, had a chance Monday night to give the Nats their eighth victory in a series opener against Houston. If he's successful, that would be the most wins through 11 games since the Nationals were the Montreal Expos in 1981.
Regardless, the Nationals are off to the franchise's best 10-game start since 1996.
It amazes me that Johnson, who at 69 is the Major Leagues' oldest skipper, was not hired by some other team after he left the Dodgers following the 2000 season. Johnson is in his 16th season as a manager and is on his fifth team. He has a .561 career winning percentage, second among all living managers with at least 1,000 games. He's won five division championships.
Give Rizzo credit for seizing Johnson's years of baseball knowledge after the 2009 season when Davey was named a senior advisor.
"He's one of the best baseball men I've ever known," said Rizzo. "I thought I knew a lot of stuff about baseball; I'd been in the game 30 years. Davey has taught me stuff that I had never heard of before."
In the fall of 1976, Johnson returned home after two years playing in the Japanese League for the Yomiuri Giants. We sat at a picnic table near the Phillies' Clearwater, Fla., Minor League training base one morning, and Johnson talked about his two seasons in Japan and how he felt he still had some productive baseball left.
I suggested he contact the Phillies, who'd just won their first NL East title and certainly could use his bat -- and expertise. He also matter-of-factly said somewhere down the road, he'd like to give managing a try, a comment that has stuck with me to this day.
Long story short: The Phillies signed Johnson, and for two seasons he was a member of the 1977 division champions. In 1978, he hit two grand slams as a pinch-hitter, but not too long after that, he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs, with whom he ended his playing career.
That the Nationals are moving toward respectability, if not being NL East contenders, is no surprise with Johnson at the helm.
The defending champion Phillies, improved Marlins and always strong Braves should finish ahead of Washington. That's what preseason prognosticators say -- on paper.
Johnson preaches that games are played on the field, and he has convinced this young team it has the ability to become a contender for years to come. Rizzo has made superb decisions, providing the Nationals with a strong Minor League system and a long list of blue-chip prospects, such as outfielder Bryce Harper.
Harper, considered baseball's No. 2 prospect, had a strong spring, but Rizzo and Johnson are refusing to rush him to the Major Leagues.
But don't be surprised if he's in the Nationals' lineup before the 2012 season is over. Harper, just 19, has earned comparisons by Johnson to Dwight Gooden, who made his Major League debut with the Mets at 19.
"I feel very positive about this organization, about Mike [Rizzo] and what he's created," said Johnson. "I'm just playing my part in it."
In this era, it takes more than mere words from a manager to motivate the new breed of players. It's not Davey's style to be a non-stop talker, but when he says something about baseball, his players listen. He speaks from experience because he's done it himself.
When Zimmerman, who's been struggling at the plate, made a spectacular full-extension play at third base in Sunday's game against Cincinnati, Johnson praised his player. He said former Orioles teammate Brooks Robinson, a Hall of Famer and considered to be the greatest defensive third basemen of all-time, couldn't have made the same play. The comment was a sure boost to Zimmerman's morale.
Before Sunday's 8-5 loss to the Reds, the Nationals had won five straight games. Despite the loss, Johnson was encouraged by the way his team fought back from a 5-0 deficit to force extra innings for the third time in four games against Cincinnati.
As I watch the Nationals, I notice a strong resemblance to the 1984 Mets, the first Major League team Johnson managed -- also a talented blend of veterans and promising youngsters. Two years later, Johnson guided the Mets to the 1986 World Series championship over Boston.
"There are strong similarities on this team," he said. "We've got a pretty good young pitcher that reminds me of Gooden in Strasburg. We've got some young players, like Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman were with the Mets.
"And we were always last place. And then we had a pretty good year, came in second, won 95 games. Then we got a little better and won 98. And then won 108. Basically, the young guys grew up. And I feel the same way here. If the young guys mature and play to their potential, it could be a similar scenario."
He didn't say it, but there's no better manager at this stage of the Nationals' growth to create that scenario.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.