- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2012

PITTSBURGH — One day after perhaps their most demoralizing loss of the season, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson closed the doors to the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park and held a brief team meeting.

“I wanted to let them know that I’m behind them 100 percent,” Johnson said. “I know we’re going to get better as the season goes on, and I appreciate the effort they’ve given so far. I wanted to put them at ease that I have confidence in everyone on this ballclub, or else they wouldn’t be here. I expect us to get it right.”

The Nationals struck out 11 times Wednesday night, falling 4-2 to the Pittsburgh Pirates and squandering numerous opportunities, particularly late. It was their third straight loss and continued a frustrating trend for an offense that has struggled to cash in consistently.

Johnson went back to the team hotel Wednesday night and stayed up until about 2 a.m. pondering his team’s most recent performance. He spoke with several players individually Thursday, including an extended conversation with second baseman Danny Espinosa, and ultimately settled on a lineup only slightly different than the ones he’s been using to this point.

Espinosa, mired in a slump that has led to a .189 batting average, .281 on-base percentage and .245 slugging, along with a league-leading 39 strikeouts, was dropped to the No. 6 spot. Bryce Harper moved into the No. 5 spot, and Roger Bernadina batted second.

“I’m not a manager that auditions players,” Johnson said, making sure to point out that he’s aware of the criticism his players and lineup have taken recently. “That’s sportswriters and maybe fans. If a guy doesn’t have a good day, maybe they try somebody else. And if they have a good day, you stick with them. I judge talent. And I know who I want to get going. I know who’s important.”

Johnson then singled out Espinosa as “the most important guy right now in this lineup,” and said he offered the second-year second baseman the day off. Espinosa conceded he’s been a little “confused” but asked to play Thursday night’s game.

“I said nothing more than ‘I’ll give you every opportunity to do the things you’re capable of because we need you,’ ” Johnson said.

The meeting, notice of which was written on the clubhouse whiteboard above the day’s other time-sensitive activities, elicited little more than a shrug from most players who were unaware of the exact reason behind it. The Nationals have talked ad nauseum about the players they’re missing with injury and what it’s done to their lineup. One player, though, pointed out the overlooked aspect of the absence of veterans such as Jayson Werth, Mark DeRosa and Brad Lidge: the calming presence they can bring when the team starts to slump.

At 18-12, they entered Thursday’s contest having lost just two series and on pace for 97 victories. Johnson made sure to cite the impressive work of his pitching staff during the meeting.

But their most recent losing streak, one that has included 31 strikeouts and 22 runners left on base, alerted Johnson to the fact that several players might be pressing to make up for the loss of several key members of the lineup. Wednesday night’s loss frustrated Johnson enough that he felt the time was now to reassure them this is not like the Nationals teams of the past. Their organizational history has no bearing here.

“[The meeting] probably wasn’t needed,” he said. “But I just kind of wanted to let a little air out of the bubble. Maybe it was more for me than them. But it’s also I’ve got some new guys on this ballclub, and I wanted to let them know that I don’t panic and I don’t take a lot of advice from people that don’t know a whole lot.

“I do read blogs and Tweeter [sic] and fans and the newspaper and also on the internet. I’m not immune to it, and I know these guys do it 100 times more than me. … [But] one day doesn’t necessarily make a winning streak. And a couple 0-fers doesn’t necessarily mean a slump.”

NOTE: First baseman Chris Marrero, who has been rehabbing a torn hamstring since the winter, suffered a setback. Marrero recently dealt with some shoulder soreness and hamstring tightness. He’s at least a month away from playing in rehab games, Johnson said.

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