Johnson knew he’d return as Nats’ skipper - with high expectations

By the last weekend of the season, when the Nationals were finally playing with both sound fundamentals and a little bit of swagger, Davey Johnson knew he would return to manage them in 2012. Yes, the Nats had to go through the formal process of interviewing candidates. Yes, Johnson was one of those being considered - the team even said he’d sit in on interviews, helping to choose a successor if he didn’t come back. But most definitely, Johnson wanted to be in the dugout when the Nats opened 2012 in Wrigley Field against the Cubs.

Still, ever the diamond diplomat, Johnson was coy when he was asked about his future. He’d always joke about reporters trying to get him to say something he wasn’t supposed to. He’d make sure to mention that the decision wasn’t his as much as it was the club’s. But there was always an eye toward to future, a sense that 2012 was a reality, a formality, and not something in the “What if?” realm.

During a private conversation during the Nationals’ last home series, he let slip a “See you next year,” quickly and efficiently trying to cover his foreshadowing with a qualifier - “assuming I’m back next year” - that was accompanied by a wink and a smile. But Monday, he was finally free to start talking about his future as the Nationals officially announced that they’d picked up his contract option, meaning Johnson will return as manager in 2012.

“It’s such a great organization and such a great bunch of kids. ... I feel like I’m kind of their father figure, I think they respect me and I feel like I can steer them on the right path,” Johnson said during a conference call with reporters.

The announcement was one of baseball’s worst-kept secrets, shrouded only by an arcane Major League Baseball rule that prohibits clubs from breaking major news during marquee events like the World Series. When Washington general manager Mike Rizzo held a conference call last week with reporters, he all but let the cat out of the bag, suggesting that media schedules be ready to accommodate some big news as soon as the Fall Classic was in the books.

Rizzo followed through on his promise Monday morning, telling reporters that Johnson’s rejuvenated energy after taking over following the surprise resignation of Jim Riggleman on June 23 made it easy to see the 68-year-old as something more than an interim fix. Under Johnson, the Nationals went 40-43, finishing in third place in the National League East with an 80-81 record, their best since 2005, the team’s inaugural season in D.C. after moving from Montreal.

“He was the easy choice,” said Rizzo.

By the end of the season, when the Nationals were reeling off 15 victories in their final 20 games, Johnson’s stamp was clearly on the team he had taken over after Riggleman abruptly resigned, upset that Rizzo wouldn’t entertain any discussions of a contract extension. Johnson’s desire to get more innings out of his starting pitchers had been realized, and he was getting a look at young hurlers who might make a future impact. The bullpen had developed into a reliable group that wasn’t overtaxed. The offense had come alive, coupling timely situational hitting with emerging power and a dash of speed.

“That’s when I thought there’s really so much more we can do here,” Johnson said Monday. “I wanted to be the one to help it come along.”

Johnson was in his second tour of duty with the Nationals as a special adviser to the general manager when Rizzo approached him about succeeding John McLaren, who had taken over for Riggleman on an interim basis. Johnson had overcome health problems, reporting to spring training in Viera, Fla., with a new-found spring in his step. Instead of camping out on a golf cart, he walked, fungo in hand, from drill to drill, engaging players, helping out Riggleman and his coaches, and, most importantly, once again assuming his preferred role as teacher and mentor.

Now, he can sum up his goals for the 2012 season in two words: “A pennant.”

Barely half a season makes Johnson think that the Nationals can deliver on those decidedly high expectations.

“Winning a division. Winning the National League,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have said that last spring - I didn’t think the talent was ready. ... But we can definitely contend and I’ll be sorely disappointed if we don’t do just that.”

Johnson will be the oldest manager in the majors in 2012 - unless someone his senior is hired to fill an offseason vacancy - and boasts a .561 winning percentage in 15 seasons at the helm of the Reds, Mets, Orioles, Dodgers and Nationals.

He is one of six living men - along with Alvin Dark, Joe Girardi, Lou Piniella, Mike Scioscia and Red Schoendienst - to win a World Series as both a manager and a player. His teams have finished first or second in divisional play 11 times, including five division titles, one National League pennant and the 1986 World Series championship with the Mets.

Follow Pete Kerzel on Twitter: @kerzelpete