WASHINGTON -- During Spring Training, Davey Johnson told a reporter he should be dismissed as manager of the Nationals if they didn't finish in first place this season. It's pretty safe to say that Johnson won't be relieved of his duties.
The Nationals are headed to the postseason and are close to clinching their first division title. The magic number to clinch the National League East was six entering Sunday's game with the Brewers.
Talk to Johnson about his prediction and he will tell you that he saw the team's good fortune dating back to September of last year, when they called up players such as infielder Steve Lombardozzi, Craig Stammen and Chris Marrero. As a former consultant for the team, he already knew about Tyler Moore, who had hit a combined 61 home runs in two Minor League seasons, and Bryce Harper, who was one of the best prospects in baseball.
Johnson also saw that the Nationals needed to improve their bench, and if general manager Mike Rizzo could acquire some quality veterans, there wasn't a doubt in Johnson's mind that the Nationals could be one of the best teams in baseball.
"I evaluated the talent and I liked the ceiling of the talent. That's when I knew we could win the division if these guys played up to their potential. I said that [last] September," Johnson said. "I knew prior to that, because I was evaluating talent for two years. I knew some the pieces. I knew the Tyler Moores, the Lombardozzis, the Harpers. I knew if [Adam] LaRoche came back healthy and Harper was in the wings, we could get the left-handed presence [we needed].
"I knew that Rizzo was smart and we could upgrade our bench. With all that, I knew we had the bases covered. I love all my coaches, and delegated authority. And I knew if we just let them play and we had the patience, we would get better. It's that simple. It's really not a hard equation to solve."
But having the patience and talent alone doesn't tell the whole story about the 2012 Nationals. Johnson, himself, is another reason the team is in first place. He has instilled confidence in his players, and it affects their attitudes. Ian Desmond, for example, is having the best year of his career. It was Johnson who put in a new hitting philosophy: stop going to the opposite field all the time and hit the ball where it is pitched.
According to reliever Drew Storen, Johnson is more than just an Xs and Os manager. He loves to joke with the players.
"He is really connected to us," Storen said. "He gets where we are coming from, and I think he does a great job putting people in positions to succeed. He tries to stay out of our way and let us play to our potential. That's one thing that he does really well.
"He is not afraid to cut it up with you, just like you would with a teammate. That's pretty awesome. That's why we respond to him."
Johnson said it doesn't matter that he has 14 years of Major League experience as a manager and has won one World Series title. He said the Nationals' players judge him by what he does today.
"Every day, they judge me like I judge them," Johnson said. "I have to earn their respect and trust on a daily basis. At the same token, they have to earn my respect and trust, and that's by their performance."
Johnson is a leading candidate to win the National League Manager of Year Award, but he downplays the possibility of winning the trophy. He reminds you that the last time he won the award, he was dismissed as manager of the Orioles after the 1997 season.
"I got run out of Dodge," Johnson jokes. "I could care less about personal awards. I don't have a large ego, and it's never really about me. I become more uncomfortable when it's about me, because it's not about me. It's about the guys on the field. They are the ones who play."
Johnson's contract expires as a manager after this season, but he has one year left as a consultant. Does he want to continue to manage the Nationals? Johnson and Rizzo will not talk about the future until after the postseason.
"I've had conversations with Rizzo about that, and he had conversations with ownership," Johnson said. "I feel good about my situation. I feel good about where we are at. Those things will be addressed after the season. I think Rizzo and ownership are perfectly comfortable when deciding to have me back after this season is over. Again, I'm comfortable with that, too. Let's see what happens."