Johnson wants a pennant for Nationals

Manager thinks the team is ready to contend

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Davey Johnson managed the Washington Nationals to a 40-43 record last season, but for much of that time his team wasn’t set up the way he would have liked.

He didn’t have a bullpen configured to his liking. His bench wasn’t constructed in a way best suited to how he’d have preferred to use it. He was stretching his starters and his relievers, and when he peered into the dugout late in games looking for a power threat he saw more defensive replacements than impact bats. It was, in his own words, “a little bit painful.”

But in the final few weeks, as the team he envisioned began to take shape, he thought: “Man, there’s so much more we can do here, and I need to be here to help see it along.”

When the Nationals on Monday exercised their option to bring Johnson back for the 2012 season, they gave him that opportunity. They did so with the hope that Johnson’s ability to put his stamp on the team from Day 1 will pay dividends — and their sights already are set on lofty goals.

“Winning the pennant,” Johnson said during a conference call. “Winning the division. Winning the National League.”

“I couldn’t have said that last spring,” he added. “I didn’t think the talent was ready, but after being there and seeing the progress that some of the young players made, I think we definitely can contend. And I would be sorely disappointed if we didn’t do just that.

“I’m not just sticking my chest out and saying some hot air. My baseball instincts tell me that’s where we need to be, that’s where we need to go, and we can get there.”

Technically, the plans to finalize the roster to reach those goals will start immediately. The Nationals must deal with their eight free agents and prepare their wish list for when the market opens Thursday. In reality, though, the Nationals‘ plans for 2012 involved Johnson long before he became manager midway through this past season.

Coming on board as an adviser to general manager Mike Rizzo almost immediately after Rizzo was named to the position in 2009, Johnson has served as a sounding board. At the same time, he was dealing with medical and personal issues. Last February in Viera, Fla., though, after Johnson underwent an ablation procedure on his heart, even Rizzo could tell that Johnson had regained a spark. If an opportunity developed where he could return to an on-field role, Rizzo began to think Johnson would again be able to handle the demands.

“The only question I had about Davey taking over was: Did he want to do it, and was his energy level and his focus going to be there?” Rizzo said. “Even as early as spring training this year, I saw a guy that just moved around better this year. He had an energy about him and a bounce in his step that I thought to myself ‘Wow, Davey’s really into it and really fired up for the season.’”

That made it an easy decision, Rizzo said, to tab Johnson in midseason when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned and again Monday, 32 days after the Nationals played their final game of 2011.

“It really feels great,” Johnson said. “It’s such a great organization, and they’re such a great bunch of kids. We haven’t’ even come close to the ceiling we’re going to get to. I really feel like I’m kind of their father figure. They respect me, and I’m the guy to kind of steer them along their path.”

Johnson turns 69 in January and will be the oldest manager in the majors next season. The Nationals interviewed others — in part to comply with Major League Baseball’s hiring protocol — but they kept coming up with the same answer: Johnson is their man. He’ll bring almost the entire coaching staff that finished the 2011 season, save for bench coach Pat Corrales, who will remain in the organization in an advisory role.

The Nationals hold an option on Johnson’s contract for 2013 as well, but Johnson preferred not to look that far ahead.

“I look at things today with an eye on tomorrow,” Johnson said. “That’s the way I manage, that’s the way I live my life. My wife [Susan] is the one that thinks about what we’re doing two years from now. Not me. I enjoy what I’m doing today, and I look forward to what I’m going to do tomorrow.

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