VIERA, Fla. - For the first workout of the spring for Nationals pitchers and catchers, the first time he’s kicked off a major league camp since 2000 in Dodgertown at the now-vacatedVero Beach, Fla., facility, manager Davey Johnson took a page from the past in his instructions to a vastly improved mound staff.
Fastballs and change-ups were allowed in the first side sessions. Breaking balls were not.
When you’re 69 and the oldest manager in the majors, you have a perspective some of the newfangled skippers don’t possess. Johnson may be familiar with iPhones and iPads, he might have his own wireless Internet network at Space Coast Stadium. But he’s also got his way of doing things, and a comfort zone is a hard thing to shake.
“I know that they’re better conditioned and that they’ve been throwing since mid-January off the mound,” Johnson said. “Their arm strength is probably up to throwing breaking balls, but I like to see them without the breaking ball. Normally, I would take it away until maybe one rotation before the games. I did catch a couple of guys trying to cheat on me - they were throwing cutters. I had to say, ‘I consider that a breaking ball, boys, so that one’s out.’ “
Why the aversion to early breaking stuff?
“It’s easier on the arm,” Johnson explained. “The breaking ball is harder on all aspects of the arm. With the adrenaline going through everybody on the first day and a new skipper, I don’t want anybody snapping breaking balls off that early. I want more of a comfort zone. I even said in the meeting, ‘I’m here to help you guys get ready, and anything I can do to help you get ready to peak close to the start of the season, that’s what I want to see.’ “
Right-hander Chien-Ming Wang threw without issue after some rumblings that he had some shoulder stiffness and a sore left hand. Righty Stephen Strasburg was popping catcher Wilson Ramos’ mitt with authority in the first side session of the two-hour workout. Southpaws Gio Gonzalez and Sean Burnett were absent briefly while they threw at Space Coast Stadium, combining their scheduled work with filming for videos that will be shown this season on the Nationals Park scoreboard.
“It was a good first day,” Johnson said.
Tuesday’s activities - Johnson continued his long-accepted practice of shorter, crisper workouts devoid of players standing around doing nothing - were a way for the Nationals manager to reacquaint himself with how he likes to run spring training. It was pretty much like a full-squad workout, too - the only position players who have yet to report are utility man Mark DeRosa, who has arrived in Viera and checked in with team officials, and non-roster outfielder Xavier Paul.
“I thought about taking Focus Factor to help my memory, go back 10 or 12 years,” Johnson joked. “In the early meetings, I wanted to know what has changed as far as MLB rules, what has changed as far as how you’ve been getting guys ready. ... I’m going to have, for my comfort zone, the things that I did to get my guys ready (in the past). I was pretty good at it.”
But a lot has changed since Johnson was let go after his second season in L.A. And Johnson believes a good foundation now will pay off once the season is under way April 5 against the Cubs in Wrigley Field.
“It’s always a learning experience, and I think a lot of things have improved, but I’m still kind of - I don’t like to use the word ‘dinosaur’ - but since I am the oldest manager now in the big leagues, I do still have a comfort zone,” he said.
Johnson has tried to adapt a schedule he used while managing Reds spring training in Plant City, Fla., back in the 1990s because he thought the physical outlay of the Nationals’ spring camp was very similar. In meetings with camp coordinator Bobby Henley leading up to Tuesday, Johnson helped Henley plot out the same drills that kicked off the first workout - a pitching station, pitchers’ fielding practice with comebackers and ground balls, and a bunting station for hurlers.
“By and large, the game doesn’t change and there’s only one way to play it,” Johnson said.
Johnson focused on the pitchers and liked what he saw Tuesday. He also liked what he heard, too - and thinks those sweet sounds came from the bat of Anthony Rendon, last June’s first-round draft pick by the Nationals.
“I thought I heard a crack or two a mile away,” Johnson said with a smile.
It’s only the first day, but Johnson seemed to enjoy seeing his team beginning to take shape as much as the players enjoyed getting back in the swing of things.
“It’s been fun for me. and it really gets fun when everybody gets here,” he said.