SAN FRANCISCO — When the words left his mouth, Davey Johnson had no hesitation. Even when he was asked to clarify; even when it meant he was asserting his pitching staff was better than that of the big, bad Philadelphia Phillies.
Sitting in the dugout before a spring training game in March, Johnson did not flinch.
"I'll take my five or six [starters] over any staff in the league," Johnson said, nodding as he said it, thinking of the potential of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and so on.
"[The Phillies'] top three versus our top three, stuffwise, we match up as good."
The words became fuel for an already burning fire of bravado that Johnson didn't shy away from all spring. He said the Nationals should fire him if his team failed to make the playoffs. He said his team had the potential to be one of the best in the majors. Blogs exploded with his words. Folks in Philadelphia and elsewhere, familiar with the brilliance of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, chuckled at the thought.
The Nationals faced the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night, the penultimate game in a 10-day trip that they opened 7-1, and Johnson’s words seemed more prophetic than ever. Washington’s 3.24 ERA was the best in baseball — 0.81 better than Philadelphia’s.
Going into Tuesday night, the Nationals’ staff had a triple-headed triple-crown winner: Gonzalez was tied for the NL lead in wins (15), Strasburg tied for the league lead in strikeouts (166), and Zimmerman, thanks to Monday night’s shelling of the Giants’ Ryan Vogelsong, led the league in ERA (2.35).
The Nationals also had the majors’ best record at 72-44.
Reminded recently of the outside reaction to his statement, Johnson only smiled — as if to say, "Yeah, how about that?"
And his team? They know their manager probably saw the possibility for this season before anyone else.
"He nailed it," said right-hander Ryan Mattheus, one of six active relievers with ERAs below 3.05 to go with a starting staff all under 3.75.
"At the time, I don’t think we realized it yet," he added. "We were like, 'All right, the skipper’s ready.' But I don’t think we knew how good we were — and I don’t even think we know how good we are yet. Davey still tells us that all the time. He expects the best out of us, and it’s come true."
Johnson's statement was predicated on potential and projections, rather than track record. In that regard, of course, most of the Nationals’ youthful staff could never stack up.
Only two of their current pitchers have playoff experience, Jackson and reliever Michael Gonzalez. The combined salaries of their top three starters are almost $48 million less than those of the Phillies. Two are coming off elbow surgery, and Strasburg eventually will be shut down this season as the Nationals look to limit his innings.
"The problem with [the statement] was that our guys didn’t have as much time," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "Our pitchers don’t have the experience in the big leagues to back it up because everyone's young. [But] you can't really beat our pitching staff. You know you have a good pitching staff when other players are saying, 'This is the toughest pitching staff to face.' [I hear that] all the time."
The stuff, the ability, the pure talent were there from the start. The numbers, Johnson knew, would come.
"I remember when Davey said that, I didn't think it was that much of a stretch," said outfielder Jayson Werth.
"That's no knock on those guys in Philadelphia. But … we've kind of lived up to all that. It wasn't an outlandish statement. It wasn’t anything. It was an honest statement. I agreed with it then; I agree with it now."
What’s happened since is that where the Nationals have thrived, the Phillies have struggled. The Nationals have won 49 of the 70 games started by Stasburg, Gonzalez or Zimmermann and 20 of the 40 started by Jackson or Detwiler. The Phillies, who lost Halladay for several months to a lat injury, have lost 30 of the 59 games started by Halladay, Lee or Hamels.
"I never thought it was a bad statement for him to come out and say to begin with," Espinosa said. "When he said it, people were like, 'Oh, that’s kind of a bold statement.' It wasn't a bold statement at all. It's the truth — 100 percent the truth. If you put [Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann] in the free-agent market, I think they'd get paid the same way [Halladay, Hamels and Lee] have been rewarded. Those guys are great pitchers. But if you compare, numberswise, I don’t think was a bold statement at all."
What's happened since is that the Nationals have rapidly ascended to baseball's elite, and their starting staff has led the way. No one is laughing at them, their manager or his statements.
"You've got your hands full when you’re facing this pitching staff," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, no stranger to powerhouse pitching staffs. "Last year, we talked about how good this staff could be. I think they're as good as any rotation in baseball. I think Davey was right."
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