The Washington Nationals have a very real shot at clinching the National League East crown in the next six games as they go from Philadelphia to St. Louis with a magic number set at five. If and when that day comes, Nationals manager Davey Johnson is planning to rest his regular players and attempt to get his pitching lined up the way he’d like it for the National League Division Series.
“I really don’t give a rats [behind] what somebody thinks about my club and who I put on the field,” Johnson said Monday before the Nationals’ 12-2 victory over the Brewers. “I’m not supposed to rest my regulars after we clinch it? I’m resting my regulars. End of conversation.
“I have a lot of confidence in the other guys, too, in that they’re fully capable, as they’ve shown all year long when they’ve had the opportunity to play. My responsibility is to getting my club ready for the next day. It’s happened in the past, I’ve had criticism and I’ve said, ‘Fine.’ I’m not worried.”
The Nationals play all nine of their remaining games against teams that, as of this moment, are still in the hunt for a playoff spot. Johnson’s fiery response to a question about resting his regulars was mostly in regard to the idea that he shouldn’t, out of respect for the teams fighting against the Phillies and the Cardinals in the standings.
But that’s not Johnson’s concern. If the Nationals have locked up a spot in the NLDS, his only focus is to prepare his team for that series.
“I’ve still got a big responsibility to making sure that my guys are ready for postseason,” Johnson said. “And it has nothing to do with what the rest of the league is doing.”
His comments seemed to become a big deal baseball-wide, particularly in places like St. Louis, Los Angeles and Milwaukee as they jockey for the second and final wild card spot. But there’s not much reason for anyone should be surprised by Johnson’s decision.
The Nationals have played 153 games this season and outside of Jayson Werth and Michael Morse, who both missed significant time with injury, no regular position player has appeared in fewer than 80 percent of those games — and that includes Bryce Harper, who spent the first month of the season playing in Triple-A.
Danny Espinosa has appeared in 151, Adam LaRoche 146 and Ryan Zimmerman 137 to lead the way — and all three have dealt with significant bumps and bruises along the way with two being propped up with cortisone shots. And it’d be silly to think every one of the position players couldn’t use a few days off to heal up as best they can before a playoff drive.
“What do you mean? We don’t need a rest,” quipped Zimmerman, a wide smile breaking across his face Monday afternoon. “No, it’d be nice to, obviously. But the most important thing is to get [the division crown] taken care of. We can rest in November if we really have to.
“But if we can win a few games here and get it taken care of to give some of our guys a couple days off, I don’t think you want to give them too many days off, you want to keep ‘em sharp and have a day or two off and then get back to it. It definitely would be an advantage for our team.”
Johnson is already displeased with the way the new format complicates lining up his pitching rotation, especially if the Nationals finish with the best record and await the winner of the one-game wild card playoff. Right now that game would be between the Atlanta Braves and the Cardinals, two very different teams starting with the basic fact that the Braves hit lefties worse than righties and the Cardinals are the opposite.
“You don’t know who you’re going to play and so it’s really difficult,” Johnson said. “If you had to go right down to the wire to win the division, then it’s going to be who’s most rested is going to start the playoffs.
“I don’t like to criticize Major League Baseball but from an operational standpoint, to line up your pitching it’s very difficult. It’s great for the fans, but boy, for a manager, it’s tough. It’s actually easier for the clubs fighting for the wild card because they’ll know who they have to beat to move ahead and then if they get it they’ll know who they’re going to play. I don’t. I shouldn’t be handicapped that way. To me, that’s putting a handicap.”
The answers to Johnson’s questions will all be known by next Thursday. Until then, the Nationals know all they need to focus on is continuing to win games. … Then rest, pitching maneuvering and everything else will fall into place.
“I don’t care about the best record,” Johnson said. “I care about winning the division. If winning the division we have the best record, wonderful. If that gives us some advantage, I don’t know yet. But the main concern, winning the division. And if we win it quickly enough, then you have a pretty good idea who your opponent might be and you can set up your pitching accordingly.”