Ted Leavengood: Thanks to Johnson, Nats morph into a contender

The 2012 Nationals have moved beyond any centennial comparisons to Clark Griffith’s inaugural year at the helm in D.C. Davey Johnson coming aboard in Washington 100 years after the Old Fox is a nice parallel. However, at this juncture, Johnson’s ability to connect with his players and mold a winning club has put his team at a far more historic juncture. After Sunday’s unbelievable comeback win against Milwaukee, the Nationals’ 61-win record can be matched only by Cincinnati. The improbable nature of Sunday’s 11-10 victory makes them appear a team of destiny.

No, these are not your grandpappy’s Nationals; well, not unless you are talking up on a whole different level. As in 1924, when the Nationals climbed out of the second division of the American League near the end of June to overtake Babe Ruth’s Yankees and sit atop the AL at the end of the season. This year’s Nationals have more in common with that historic team.

Which is not to say that the 2012 Nationals are headed to the World Series. There are many rivers still to cross before we can take the full measure of this team. But there are compelling points of convergence between the most famous of all Washington baseball teams and this current one as we pass the 100-game mark in the season.

The 1924 Nationals were built around pitching, or better still, a pitcher: Walter Johnson. The “Big Train” was 36 that year. Owner Griffith and manager Bucky Harris only let him throw 277 innings. They had him on an innings limit, and allowed him only 38 starts. Johnson had thrown 340-370 inning earlier in his career.

The unique talents of Johnson and Stephen Strasburg invite comparison, but it is not just Strasburg’s youth that sets him apart. It is his role within the framework of the team as a whole. Big Train was the focus of those old Nationals teams in a way that Strasburg is unlikely ever to be. Strasburg is the ace of the staff and his career may trace an historic arc as Johnson’s did, but Strasburg is just one ace in a deck stacked with them. That is a situation no Washington team has ever known before. It is without precedent.

Assuming that this fall the Nationals make their first postseason appearance, they will likely feature a four-man rotation of Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. Although there are no Cy Young Award winners among them, yet their combined ERA of 2.99 is a mark as good as any other four-man rotation in the majors. And that is without Strasburg.

Despite these unique pitching riches, there is one very crucial convergence between the best Washington baseball teams and this current one. It is not so much on the field as in the baseball wisdom of the architects who gathered these players together and mold to this day into a team. One cannot compare current manager Davey Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo to their antecedents directly because the game has changed so much and management roles have grown so specialized. Yet there has been a genius at work in the Washington dugout this season that we have not seen since the game outgrew the magic of the “Old Fox,” Griffith.

Davey Johnson’s effect can be seen in the growing confidence not just of individual players like Ian Desmond, or more recently, Roger Bernadina, but in the swagger of the team overall. The common thread in many postgame interviews is the expectation of winning that players articulate. Much of that poise and certainty derives from Johnson. His players expect the winning tradition he brought to Washington to color their own game.

Johnson’s patient support for players like Bernadina is one of several compelling mini-dramas within the overall team story. Despite outstanding raw talent, Bernadina has moved at the outer edge of the team’s sodality. Unable to take advantage of prior opportunities, he was clearly uncertain his future or his role. Cutting Rick Ankiel, painful though it was for everyone, was a crucial show of support for Bernadina. He has responded by hitting .357 in the last two weeks and, along with Danny Espinosa, has provided spark at the back end of the order to fill the gaping hole left when Desmond went down. Bernadina’s smiling face fills the dugout now.

Even more than Bernadina, Espinosa’s skills are prodigious, but he languished during the first half of the season, unable to find himself at the plate. Johnson’s determined support for his young infielder has also paid off. He is batting just under .300 since Desmond went down and slugging .589, just another example of a player filling the gap, working with team mates to win even the improbable ones like today’s extra-inning comeback win in Milwaukee.

Johnson revels in the success of players like these, not just because it makes him look good, but because he has a real human connection with them and with the game. It showed numerous times today as the team worked its way back to win, Johnson was grinning like a kid as they did it. His bond with the team is the fundamental chemistry on which it is built.

It is reminiscent of the Old Fox, working with Harris to bring along his “Boy Manager.” By the end of 1924, Harris was a boy no longer. He was the leader of a championship team. Johnson and his young charges stand at a similar juncture. They have the talent and the chemistry. Now they just need the ball to bounce their way.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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