Davey Johnson makes his debut as the Nationals’ manager tonight. He takes over a team that’s 40-38 and just 3 ½ games back in the wild-card race. Can he possibly steer the Nats into the playoffs for the first time since they moved to Washington?
What’s amazing is how often a replacement manager has done just that – guided a club to the postseason. It’s happened a dozen times since 1978, the most recent only two years ago. The details:
● 2009 Rockies (92-70) – Original manager: Clint Hurdle (18-28). Replacement: Jim Tracy (74-42). Earned NL wild-card berth. Lost to Phillies in Division Series. Postscript: Tracy is still the manager. His record since: 121-118.
● 2008 Brewers (90-72) – Original manager: Ned Yost (83-67). Replacement: Dale Sveum (7-5). Earned NL wild-card berth. Lost to Phillies in Division Series. Sveum was rushed in when Milwaukee went into a free fall late in the season and was in danger of losing the wild-card spot. Dale pulled them out of it; the Brewers won six of their last seven to nose out the Mets. Postscript: The next season, Ken Macha was hired as manager and Sveum became the hitting coach.
● 2004 Astros (92-70) – Original manager: Jimy Williams (44-44). Replacement: Phil Garner (48-26). Earned NL wild-card berth. Lost to Cardinals in NLCS. Postscript: Garner took the ’Stros one step farther in ’05 – to the World Series (where they were swept by the White Sox). Near the end of the ’07 season, though, he was dumped in favor of Cecil Cooper.
● 2003 Marlins (91-71) – Original manager: Jeff Torborg (16-22). Replacement: Jack McKeon (75-49). Earned NL wild-card berth. Beat Yankees in World Series. Postscript: McKeon retired two years later after posting a 241-207 mark with Florida. He reassumed the job last week at the age of 80 when Edwin Rodriguez resigned.
● 1996 Dodgers (90-72) – Original manager: Tom Lasorda (41-35). Replacement: Bill Russell (49-37). Earned NL wild-card berth. Lost to Braves in Division Series. Postscript: Russell took over in midseason for Lasorda, who suffered a heart attack. He managed the club for another year and a half, compiling 173-149 record, before getting fired.
● 1989 Blue Jays (89-73) – Original manager: Jimy Williams (12-24). Replacement: Cito Gaston (77-49). Won AL East. Lost to A’s in ALCS. Postscript: Under Gaston, the Jays won four division crowns and two World Series.
● 1988 Red Sox (89-73) – Original manager: John McNamara (43-42). Replacement: Joe Morgan (46-31). Won AL East. Lost to A’s in ALCS. Postscript: Morgan also led the Sox to the division title in ’90. His record in four years as their skipper: 301-262.
● 1983 Phillies (90-72) – Original manager: Pat Corrales (43-42). Replacement: General manager Paul Owens (47-30). Won NL East. Lost to Orioles in World Series. Postscript: Owens lasted just one more year with the Phils, directing them to an 81-81 record.
● 1982 Brewers (95-67) – Original manager: Buck Rodgers (23-24). Replacement: Harvey Kuenn (72-43). Won AL East. Lost to Cardinals in World Series. Postscript: Kuenn was canned a year later after Milwaukee finished fifth with an 87-75 mark.
● 1981 Yankees (59-48) – Original manager: Gene Michael (48-34). Replacement: Bob Lemon (11-14). This was the screwiest season of all – the ’81 strike season. The Yankees won the AL East in the first half (pre-strike), guaranteeing them a spot in the expanded playoffs. But when they struggled in the second half (post-strike), owner George Steinbrenner made another of his innumerable manager changes. With Lemon at the helm, the Yanks advanced to the World Series, where they lost to the Dodgers. Postscript: The following season, Lemon was ousted after a 6-8 start … and replaced by Michael. He never managed again.
● 1981 Expos (60-48) – Original manager: Dick Williams (44-37). Replacement: Jim Fanning (16-11). Another product of the ’81 strike. The Expos finished strongly enough under Fanning to win the NL East in the second half. They then beat the Phillies in the first round of the playoffs but fell to the Dodgers in the NLCS. Postscript: Fanning, previously Montreal’s director of scouting, stayed on as manager for one more season (86-76) before returning to the front office. He served another stint as a replacement manager in 1984, but wasn’t nearly as successful (14-16).
● 1978 Yankees (100-63) – Original manager: Billy Martin (52-42). Interim manager: Dick Howser (0-1). Replacement: Bob Lemon (48-20). Won AL East (in a memorable playoff against the Red Sox). Beat Dodgers in World Series. Postscript: Steinbrenner gave Lemon the boot 65 games into the next season (34-31) … and brought back Martin.
As you can see, there’s plenty of precedent for a replacement manager whipping a team into playoff shape. Whether Johnson can do it with the Nationals is open question, but he certainly has enough time – 84 games.