PITTSBURGH - Davey Johnson held a closed-door team meeting this afternoon in the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park.
Before he did so, however, the 70-year-old Johnson went into the batting cage in the tunnel - sans batting gloves, as always - and took about 40 swings, more than he had in decades and so many that he left the cage with a blister on his left hand.
“I wanted to see if it was that hard to still hit a baseball,” Johnson deadpanned.
The Nationals, picked by many as a World Series favorite this season, are a surprising 15-15 through their first 30 games this season. They’re hitting .239 as a team (third-worst in the league), have scored just 3.4 runs per game (third-worst in the league) and have made 24 errors (most in the league).
They’ve scored three or fewer runs in 11 of their last 13 games and put up just one run last night in a loss to the Pirates, a game in which they struck out 14 times. Seven of those strikeouts were looking.
Johnson said he “wasn’t too keen” on what he saw last night, so he decided to do something he hates - hold a full-team meeting.
“It was probably more for me, so I feel like I’m doing something,” Johnson said. “(The message was) just don’t try to do too much. If you’re going to strike out, go down swinging, or something like that. We’re across the board not doing the things, not playing up to our potential. I take that more personally because my job is to put them in situations where they can succeed. If they’re not succeeding, am I doing something wrong or are the coaches doing something wrong? Are we listening to what all these writers are writing? What are we doing? Just try to clear the air. Let’s keep having fun, let’s go ahead and do the things we’re capable of doing.
“I told them I understand why we made a few baserunning errors - we have haven’t been on base that much. But that should improve the more we get on base. The more strikes we throw, the more the pitching will be consistent.”
Johnson only called two team meetings all of last season, and one of them was a ploy. Johnson has since admitted that the second meeting, held in Miami late in the season after the Nats had lost five straight, wasn’t a meeting at all, and he just closed the clubhouse doors so outsiders would think the Nats were taking aggressive measure to get back on track. Today’s meeting was real, but it doesn’t sound like it was all that intense.
“It was more to let them know where I’m coming from and for them to be aware that I know what they’re dealing with,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t where I was chastising anybody, because I know the makeup and I know the effort we’re giving. If anything, we might be putting more pressure on ourselves that we should.”
Strangely enough, the one legitimate team meeting last year (excluding the ploy in Miami) took place here in Pittsburgh. Not only that, but it happened prior to the Nats’ 31st game of the season, same as today. Not only that, but Stephen Strasburg was taking the mound that day, just as he is today.
“I had no idea,” Johnson said, amazed by the coincidences. “That never entered my mind. Because I don’t have many meetings. Maybe after 30 games, it’s somewhere deep down in my self-conscious that I have to have a meeting. I won’t have to worry about that next year, but that’s something I didn’t know. You learn something every day, I guess.”
Johnson says it’s not like this has been building inside of him for a while and he finally felt the need to address his team as a whole. He hasn’t been losing sleep lately - he actually said he slept well last night; winning the final two games in Atlanta this week helped in that department - and maintained that he still really likes his team and wouldn’t trade his roster for anyone else’s.
Instead, Johnson wanted to just address a couple issues and let his players know he’s in this with them.
“When I don’t have everything functioning the way that I want it to function or the way I think that it should function, I take responsibility for that more than I blame them,” Johnson said. “I just wanted them to be aware that even though I’m kind of quiet and kind of patient, that I was looking in the mirror and trying to make sure that I wasn’t leaving any stone unturned about the pulse of this ballclub.
“I don’t know how the meeting went, but I’m glad that it’s over with. I like watching this club play baseball. I like the effort, I like the talent, and I like them individually.”
Denard Span, meanwhile, said he nearly fell to the ground when he tried to step out of bed this morning.
Span fouled a ball off his right ankle/foot in the first inning last night and he said the ankle tightened up overnight. The Nats’ center fielder is out of the lineup today, and says he’s not sure whether he’ll be back in there tomorrow.
Johnson had planned to give Span a day off either today or tomorrow anyway, with the Nats facing two left-handed Pirates starters. Span had played in 28 of the Nats’ 30 games coming into today, and Johnson wanted him to rest, so the ankle injury comes at a decent time.
Span said he might be available to come off the bench late in the game today if the ankle starts to loosen up throughout the afternoon.