Johnson on playing his starters and Lombardozzi’s strong season

ST. LOUIS - Davey Johnson says he didn’t sleep too well last night. Can’t really blame him.

In his last season as manager of the Nationals, he officially saw his team get knocked from the playoff picture last night. The season that Johnson labeled as “World Series or bust” back at the Winter Meetings reached bust here in St. Louis, leaving Johnson to go through all the what-ifs as he laid in bed last night.

Eventually, he got to sleep, and made his way over to the ballpark earlier today. It’s been part of Johnson’s daily routine so many days over the years, but today’s trip to the park felt different.

“(You) want to be looking ahead and setting up your thing for the playoffs. That’s what you do,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden it hits you like a ton of bricks and (you) say, ‘Oh, dang, now what am I gonna do? I go home, that’s what I do.’ “

As you can tell by looking at the Nationals’ lineup for tonight’s game, Johnson is going to keep playing his starters against the Cardinals in an effort to try and play spoiler. The Cardinals sit two games up on the Pirates and Reds in the NL Central, and if the Nats can bump St. Louis into the one-game wild card game, they’d love to do so.

“These games are important for the division race,” Johnson said. “If they’re gonna win the division, they need to earn it. And I think we’ve got enough pride here that we don’t want ‘em to have an easy road. And I know my guys feel the same way, too.”

The Nats will close the season with three games against the Diamondbacks, a team that is not postseason-bound. The spoiler role won’t exist in those games, but it sounds like Johnson still plans on playing his starters for the bulk of the innings out in Arizona instead of giving some of his younger guys a chance to start some games.

“These guys also have goals and what they want to achieve and whatever,” Johnson said. “I know the talent and the organization knows the talent. We’ve given them a little experience up here. Most of them here have been in ballgames. All of them have been in ballgames. If somebody can’t go, we’ve got some guys that I’m sure are champing to get in there.

“But surely we don’t need any rest. We’re gonna have an off-day and then we’re gonna have five months, six months. So it’s not like we’re gonna be worn out.”

Steve Lombardozzi has started just one game in the last week, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t found a way to made an impact. Over the last few months, Lombardozzi has emerged as the Nationals’ most effective pinch-hitter, and it hasn’t even really been close.

After notching a pinch-hit single in the eighth inning last night, Lombardozzi now has 13 pinch hits on the season, tied for the major league lead with the Phillies’ Kevin Frandsen. Chad Tracy is second on the Nats with 10 pinch hits, but he’s batting .159 this season.

Strangely enough, Lombardozzi has been much more effective as a pinch-hitter than he has when he’s been in the starting lineup. He has a .288/.311/.424 slash line as a pinch-hitter, with five extra-base hits in 59 at-bats, compared to a .251/.271/.320 slash line with 13 extra-base hits in 219 at-bats as a starter.

“He’s been a mainstay on the bench,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough job, and he’s handled it very well mentally and physically. He’s been my best pinch-hitter all year long. Everyone else has been kind of non-existent. Really, I was hoping that would be one the strong points coming in, production out of the bench, because that’s where you win a lot of ballgames. Your bench contributes when they’re playing, resting some of the regulars, but mainly the double-switches and pinch-hits at the end of the ballgame. ...

“He’s been more aggressive this year, and he actually needs to tone that down. Because his on-base percentage this year has not been how it should be. But he’s a smart, young player and he’s done a heck of a job in a tough situation.”

Unfortunately for Lombardozzi, it seems like his playing time with the Nationals will continue to be somewhat limited. Anthony Rendon has gotten the vast majority of the starts at second base since Danny Espinosa was demoted, and Rendon has impressed in his first big league season. The Nationals are still optimistic about Espinosa’s long-term outlook, as well, despite how badly he struggled this season.

Johnson obviously won’t be managing the Nats next spring, so it won’t be on him to determine Lombardozzi’s role and playing time. But when asked if Lombardozzi has a shot to become the starting second baseman next season, Johnson seemed to indicate he feels Lombardozzi would be better suited remaining in a bench role.

“Well, you know, he’s also invaluable doing what he does,” Johnson said. “Not many people can do that. Certainly he could be a regular on a lot of clubs, but we have three candidates here, Espinosa, Rendon and him. That’s going to be a tough, that’s going to be one of the biggest calls the organization will have to make: Who wins the job and who goes down.”

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