Johnson, Nationals a perfect match
Veteran skipper the best choice to steer young, talented team
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals are so banged up, their trainer's room looks like a scene from M*A*S*H*.
Ten players are on the disabled list, and if you add up the total games missed by each, it approaches 300.
Manager Davey Johnson spends more time going over trainer Lee Kuntz's daily medical report than batting and pitching averages.
It's amazing the Nationals have been one of Major League Baseball's best 2012 stories, considering the injuries they've endured. Johnson deserves much of the credit.
"This is ridiculous," Johnson said. "Things like this just go in bunches, but I always try to look at the bright side."
That the Nationals, who have risen from being perennial last-place finishers, have been at or near the top of the tough National League East this season isn't a surprise, not with Johnson at the helm.
Johnson has been a winner at every stop during 15 seasons as a manager. He's finished first or second 11 times, has won division titles five times, and everybody remembers 1986, when his Mets stunned Boston in the World Series. He has just one losing record among his 12 full seasons.
The last time the Orioles finished a season with a winning record (1997), Johnson was the manager. And he was named American League Manager of the Year, to boot.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made a wise decision when he moved Johnson to the dugout last June after having him at his side as senior advisor since 2009. Rizzo calls Johnson "one of the best baseball men I've ever known."
Davey is pushing 70 and is the oldest manager in the Majors, but few skippers are as talented at handling a young, talented team like the Nationals.
"I'm a players' manager. I know what they go through, how hard it is to play this game," Johnson said during an interview with MLB.com. "I love baseball. ... The opportunity came here when Jim Riggleman resigned. I had no aspirations to get back to the big leagues, but I knew the organization well. When you get older, you like challenges."
There have been numerous comparisons to the 1984 Mets that Johnson took over for his first Major League managerial job. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were young phenoms who would give the Mets one of their best eras in the franchise's history, not to mention their last World Series title.
The 1984 Mets won 90 games, their first winning season in eight years.
"I managed in the Mets' farm system two years, so I knew all the Minor League talent very well," Johnson said. "Here, I was a consultant to the GM and got to know the players. The talent level when I was with the Mets was very good, and the talent level here is very good."
In today's baseball, the daily injury report for every team is news. To put it bluntly, Major Leaguers seldom play hurt.
Johnson is far from a critic of that, but in his day ... "We just played through it. I pulled a hamstring in Triple-A. After the game, I got a shot of cortisone and was sent back out the next day."
That just doesn't happen today.
Davey believes many injuries are caused because the demand on the players could be greater.
"They go harder and try to do more," Johnson said. "There's enormous pressure on them to perform at a high level. The game isn't that easy, so when you have that pressure where you try to do more than you're capable of doing, injuries can happen. Maybe the body can't take it when it's pushed to the limits."
There's also the huge salaries players now earn. They're overly cautious because even a small injury can lead to a career-ending problem.
This brings us to pitcher Stephen Strasburg, starting his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 during his rookie season.
Johnson and the Nationals are limiting their ace to 160 innings this year. On Sunday, after five innings and 90 pitches against the Orioles, Strasburg was removed when he developed tightness in his arm.
Strasburg, who has thrown 53 innings en route to a 4-1 record and 2.21 ERA, should reach 160 innings in early September.
Would Johnson pull the plug if the Nationals are in contention for the postseason?
Yes, he said. The limit stands regardless.
"We have a great medical corps and general manager," Johnson said. "We did that last year with Jordan Zimmermann [who had the same surgery]. We pulled the plug on him, and he was throwing better than any pitcher we had.
"I've done a study on all guys who have had Tommy John surgery, and this is the thing to do, not just for this year, but future years. I've always believed in monitoring pitch counts. Even with a tremendous pitcher like Dwight Gooden, I hardly ever let him go over 120 pitches."
Pausing, he added: "Starting pitching this year has been second-to-none in Major League Baseball as far as I'm concerned."
The Nats won, 2-1, in Philadelphia Monday night, in a renewal of what has become a bitter rivalry, ever since Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels admitted he deliberately plunked rookie Bryce Harper with a 93-mph fastball 15 days ago in a nationally televised game.
"I don't think it will be a big deal," Johnson said. "Hamels made it a big deal by popping off. In my estimation, he was trying to pitch [Harper] inside, but [Hamels] came out and said, 'No, I wanted to send him a message.' That was unnecessary."
For the first time since these teams began their rivalry, the five-time NL East champion Phillies are in last place and the Nationals are battling for first.
And as an aside, Hamels, who was suspended for five games, will pitch Wednesday's series finale.
"Again, it's no big deal," said Johnson.
But beating the Phillies is.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.