Davey Johnson doesn’t believe in team meetings. The 70-year-old Nationals manager is old school in that regard, preferring to informally chat with the players on his team when he needs to communicate a message. However, Johnson felt the urge to call a team meeting last weekend with his Nationals standing at 15-15 after 30 games, a far cry from where they were expected to be after winning 98 games last season, more than any team in the major leagues. Johnson’s message was simply to tell his players to relax.
“You could tell that everyone was trying too hard,” Johnson said. “Everyone was trying to do too much, trying to be the hero in every at-bat or with every pitch. Sometimes you just need to step back and let the game come to you. Our guys were trying to force things.”
The message apparently has been received. The Nationals have won three games in a row since the meeting, and five of their last six, to move three games over .500. The mood has become appreciably lighter.
“You can feel things starting to turn,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “We’re playing a lot better and a lot looser. Last year, we played with such great confidence, and it kept building and building as the year went on. I think we’re starting to get that confidence back.”
The Nationals never fell below .500 last season. After splitting their first four games, they won 12 of their next 14, and that set the tone. The Nationals are seemingly a better team this season after signing right-hander Dan Haren and closer Rafael Soriano as free agents in the offseason, and there is a sense that the best is yet to come.
“I still don’t feel like we’re playing as well as we can,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “The pitching is not as good as it’s going to be, and we’re not hitting the way we can. I really think we’re in a pretty good spot in that we have a decent record despite the way we’ve played. “
The Nationals are scoring just 3.53 runs a game, which ranks 13th in the National League and 26th in the majors. Left fielder Bryce Harper (.350) is the only regular with a True Average over .280.
“Sometimes, I think it just takes one guy to really starting hitting and everyone will follow,” Johnson said. “I feel that’s what’s going to happen with our club. We just need a couple of guys to man up and start hitting, that’s all.”
LaRoche, who has a .219 TAv, wants to be that guy. He posted a .303 mark last season.
“I feel like when I get going, we just start scoring more runs, for some reason,” LaRoche said. “Other guys start hitting and we push across more runs.”
The Nationals have wasted a lot of good pitching. They are fifth in the NL and 10th in the majors in runs allowed with 3.91 a game. Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez believes that negative run differential will change soon, though.
“Everyone knows we’re going to hit and our pitching staff is going to get good run support,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just a cycle we’re going through right now. We’ve got a really good lineup with a lot of proven hitters. We proved last year what we’re capable of doing, and I really believe we have a better team this year. Everything is going to even out and we’re going to win a lot of games before the season is over.”
Another scary scene of a pitcher getting hit in the head by a line drive played out Tuesday night at St. Petersburg, as Jays right-hander J.A. Happ took one off the bat of Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings. Thankfully, Happ did not sustain any significant injuries other than a very slight skull fracture that is expected to heal on its own.
The latest incident brings back memories of last August, when Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon McCarthy, then pitching for the Athletics, was in a near-death situation after being struck by a liner from Angels shortstop Erick Aybar. Like someone looking at a car wreck, Mariners left-hander Joe Saunders went into the clubhouse during Tuesday night’s game against the Pirates to look at video of Happ getting hit.
“I wish I wouldn’t have done it,” Saunders said. “It was bad. It reminds you how vulnerable we are on the mound.”
Mariners right-hander Aaron Harang has never been hit in the head, but he was took a line drive off his ribcage off the bat of Manny Ramirez during a spring training game. The ball was clocked at 117 mph off the bat, and Harang’s right side was black and blue for two months. While Major League Baseball has been working with various companies in an attempt to devise a Kevlar liner that would fit underneath a pitcher’s cap, Harang thinks such a move would meet with resistance.
“It’s a good idea in theory, but I don’t know how practical it is. I think you need to start with that at the lower level—I’m talking high school and maybe even lower—and then gradually introduce it into the higher level,” Harang said. “I’ve been pitching since I was 6 years old, and I’ve never worn a helmet. I think it would be tough to make that adjustment while pitching in a major-league game. I played with a guy in high school who’d had an operation to remove a brain tumor and he pitched with a helmet, so it can be done, but I think it’s going to be hard for a major-league pitcher to be able to just change right away.”
Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay will be one of the most interesting free agents on the market next offseason now that he is scheduled to have surgery on his pitching shoulder. Halladay’s vesting option would have been for $20 million for 2014 if he had met his innings pitched thresholds in the contract. That leads to the question of just what kind of contract Halladay will command on the open market.
“That’s a real tough question,” said one front-office type. “You’re going to have an aging pitcher coming off a significant injury and two poor seasons. Yet it’s still tempting to sign him because he is Roy Halladay, and maybe he’ll come back and still be a pretty good No. 2 or No. 3 starter after he has surgery. While I wouldn’t do it, I bet somebody gives him a one-year contract worth $10 million-$12 million guaranteed with a club option for 2015. I just have a feeling someone will take that shot.”
Phillies center fielder Ben Revere: “You can tell there’s been an adjustment period for the kid, going to a new team and going to a new league. He looks tentative at the plate and on the bases. He’s a better player than what he’s shown so far this season, but the one thing he definitely can do is play the heck out of center field.”
Brewers first baseman Yuniesky Betancourt: “He’s finally improved his plate discipline, and that’s helped him raise his game. He’ll still swing at some bad pitches, but he’s not swinging at everything like he used to. He’s showing a little discretion.”
Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann: “He gets lost in the shuffle a little bit in that rotation because of (Stephen) Strasburg, but he’s really good. He has sharpened his command to the point where he can pretty much put every pitch where he wants. He might not be the No. 1 starter in Washington, but he could be the No. 1 for a lot of teams.
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte: “I really thought big-league pitchers would expose him because of his penchant for swinging at bad pitches, but they haven’t so far. He’s a very dynamic player. He’s fast. He’s got power. He has a chance to be one of the more exciting players in the game. He’s fun to watch.”
Rangers right-hander Justin Grimm: “He’s got good stuff, but I also like how he is a very polished pitcher for a young kid. He has a real idea of what he wants to do when he’s on the mound and changes speeds on his breaking pitches exceptionally well for a young guy.”
Cardinals closer Edward Mujica: “He’s done a nice job in that role. He’s not going to overpower you, but he doesn’t get flustered and he makes pitches. I don’t know, for me, if he’s a long-term closer, but he is filling the void really well right now.”
Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum: “He is going to have to make the adjustment from being a pure power pitcher to a guy with more normal stuff. He’s been stubborn right now. He thinks he can still blow hitters away. He has got to come to grips to the fact that his staff isn’t what it once was.”
Indians outfielder Ryan Raburn: “You can see just by the way he stands in the batter’s box that he has his confidence back. He also has his bat speed back this year. I know it ended badly for him in Detroit, but it was a great pickup by Cleveland.”
Cubs right-hander Edwin Jackson: “I can’t help but wonder if he’s pressing to try to live up to the big contract he signed in the offseason. When he gets into jams, he starts overthrowing, and innings—and games—are getting away from him.”
Dodgers right-hander Matt Magill: “I really like him. He doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he isn’t scared of big-league hitters. He goes right after them and is very aggressive in the strike zone. I could see him having a really good career as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.”