PHOENIX — Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson walked from the visitors’ dugout up the tunnel to the clubhouse at Chase Field Saturday evening knowing there would be only one more time he’d get to do it. His veteran starting pitcher had penned a swan song worthy of his former-All-Star status and, though his closer made it interesting, the Nationals hung on for a 2-0 win over the Diamondbacks.
Johnson climbed the steps and emerged into the clubhouse to find his entire team waiting for him. They stood, and applauded. They gave their 70-year-old manager, who has been a self-described “wet rag” the last week, since a tribute to his career was held last Sunday, hugs and presented him with a nice bottle of wine.
In the previous few days, Johnson had made a small personal milestone known to most of them. Maybe it was “stupid,” as he himself called it on Friday. Just a round number he’d decided on one day this week. Maybe it was nothing more than a motivational tactic to get his team not to end the season with a whimper and six straight losses after their elimination.
Johnson noticed in the team’s game notes on Monday that he was 303 games over the .500 mark for his managerial career. And if he could finish above that 300 mark, he told them, it’d make him happy. So, they wrapped their minds around what he was asking, and after getting steamrolled out of St. Louis, they came to Arizona and did it.
“Those guys are great,” Johnson said, standing in the small visiting manager’s office that will stand as the last place he puts on a Nationals uniform. “I think they were feeling it as much as I was, and that was wonderful. The effort was outstanding and I can’t even put words on it.”
In the standings, the game was meaningless. The Diamondbacks were eliminated even before the Nationals, and ultimately it will go down as simply the 86th win a Nationals season that didn’t have quite enough of them. Dan Haren pitched seven strong, Denard Span’s MLB-best 11th triple of the year helped them to their first run, and Chad Tracy’s fourth homer of the season gave them their second. Rafael Soriano put two runners on but saved his 43rd game.
But for the participants it meant more. For Johnson, the goal was well-publicized. The goal might’ve seemed arbitrary, but there was this fact: there are only 14 managers ever to finish their careers 300 games over .500 and of the 13 others 11 are already in the Hall of Fame. The remaining two, Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa, are already ticketed as future inductees.
“(Ian Desmond) and all them said that if we didn’t get the tonight, they were going to play (Sunday),” Johnson said. “But if we didn’t get it tonight, I was still going with all the young kids tomorrow. Didn’t matter to me; 299? I can live with that.”
And for the pitcher who helped him avoid that fate, Haren, the game represented more, too. It was a chance to finish the most trying campaign of his career on a high note.
“I wanted the game,” Haren said. “Davey wanted it bad. We’ve got all our starters in there. No use going out there just giving a half-hearted effort.
“I know (Davey) had his ‘Win one for the Gipper’ thing yesterday. So I guess we won two for the Gipper.”
Haren’s season came complete with a 10-14 record, 4.67 ERA and his eighth consecutive season with 30 starts or more. The beginning was a trainwreck, as he took a 6.15 ERA to what he called the “phantom disabled list” in late June, but the end was redemptive. In his final 15 starts after coming off the DL, Haren’s ERA was 3.29.
“I’m proud of the way I turned it around,” Haren said. “But I really beat myself up about it during the first half. Just that really, really bad stretch of starts I had. It’s been a really tough emotional mental year for me.
“I’m happy with the way I finished up, but I’ll still always have that guilt of the way it started and the expectations that were not met for the team.”
Haren has said a handful of times in recent days that he doesn’t imagine he’ll be a part of the team once Sunday’s game comes to a close. On top of his mixed results, his family remained on the west coast this season and his preference would be to return there next year. Still, like so many of his teammates, he seemed to greet the end of the season regretfully.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” he said Saturday. “It happened fast. Things go quick. Sad, a little bit.”
The question of what this team could have been hung in the air for so many of them.
“This team built a lot of character this year,” Haren said. “I know I probably won’t be a part of it next year, but we’re going to be — the Nationals will be a scary team next year. Nobody wanted to play us this year. If we got in, we’d be the team to beat. The talent is there for next year and this organization is in a good place.”