In '11, Nats show promise of things to come
Development of young infielders crucial to club's future
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals ended the 2011 campaign with their second-best record since moving to Washington after the 2004 season. It helped that they had a manager in Davey Johnson who worked wonders with young players like shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa.
Two examples: Johnson told the right-handed-hitting Desmond to stop taking every pitch to right field. Once he stopped going the other way, Desmond put up respectable numbers after the All-Star break.
Johnson has made no secret of how much he enjoys watching Espinosa play, but after a bad performance at the plate in early September, Espinosa was still looking at video in the wee hours of the morning. Johnson told Espinosa to stop, go home and relax.
The conversation worked, as Espinosa had two doubles and scored a run in four at-bats against the Astros on Sept. 11.
Although Johnson had the magic touch with young players, there is no guarantee that he will return next season.
Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo recently declined to talk about Johnson's future with the club. Johnson has two years left on his contract as a consultant; if he doesn't come back as the skipper, he will play a major role in finding his replacement.
Third-base coach Bo Porter, Triple-A Syracuse manager Randy Knorr and first-base coach Trent Jewett are in-house candidates for the job. Rizzo declined to give a timetable on when next season's manager would be named.
"I love Davey," Rizzo said. "He is going to be back next year in some capacity. He is either going to be the manager of the ballclub or have a say on who is the manager of the ballclub.
"I anticipate the process to be much quicker. We already identified the candidates. We are going to talk to them."
Johnson said he is taking one day at a time.
"I plan on managing today and going home, play a little golf and relax," Johnson said. "[I'm going to] introduce myself to my wife, dog and my kids. There is a long process that the team has to go through. I'm very comfortable with that."
What follows is a quick look back at a 2011 season in which development was the top priority:
Record: 80-81, third in National League East.
Defining moment: Call them the Never Say Die Nationals. On June 21 against Seattle, Washington scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth to win, 6-5, thanks to a walk-off homer by catcher Wilson Ramos.
The Nationals proved they had that fight in them against All-Star closer Brandon League. Jayson Werth led off and reached second base on an error by first baseman Justin Smoak. After Roger Bernadina walked, Ryan Zimmerman hit into a double play that erased Bernadina.
If that double play had been hit in any of the previous four seasons, the Nats likely would have gone on to lose the game, but this was 2011, and they expected to win.
Jerry Hairston Jr. followed Zimmerman with a single to center field to drive in Werth. Michael Morse hit a liner that bounced off League's right leg for an infield single, putting runners on first and second.
League was replaced by right-hander David Pauley, who allowed an RBI single to Danny Espinosa.
Then Ramos came to the plate. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein had told Ramos to be aware of Pauley's changeup, his second-best pitch. The first two pitches Pauley threw to Ramos were sinkers. The count was 1-1.
That's when Ramos decided to wait on the changeup. When it came, Ramos didn't miss it, hitting it over the wall in left-center to give the Nationals their 36th victory of the season.
Ramos knew the ball was gone the moment he hit it.
What went right: The bullpen continued to be the backbone of the team. In his first full season, right-hander Drew Storen saved over 40 games, while right-hander Tyler Clippard was dominant in the setup role and was the team's representative in the All-Star Game. ... After Jim Riggleman resigned as manager, the hiring of Johnson was one of Rizzo's best moves of the season. Johnson became the first manager in team history to stick to "The Plan." He played the kids and benched veterans such as catcher Ivan Rodriguez and right-hander Livan Hernandez. ... Morse is nicknamed "The Beast" for a good reason. He was Washington's best hitter in 2011 and led the club in home runs, RBIs and batting average. ... The Nats went from one of the worst defensive teams in the Majors in 2010 to the middle of the pack. It helped that Desmond and Espinosa were splendid up the middle. ... Although they missed right-hander Stephen Strasburg for most of the season, the Nationals had a solid staff under pitching coach Steve McCatty. The staff ranked in the top 10 in the Majors in ERA.
What went wrong: The offense was one of the worst in the NL. It didn't helped that Zimmerman missed more than two months because of abdominal surgery and Adam LaRoche missed most of the season because of a shoulder injury. ... Although he became a leader in the clubhouse and on the field, right fielder Werth struggled with the bat most of the season after signing a seven-year, $126 million contract. ... The bench was one of the worst in baseball. Johnson didn't like that the bench was built on speed and defense.
Biggest surprise: The Nationals brought a buzz back to the nation's capital for the first time since 2005. If not for the injuries to LaRoche, Strasburg and Zimmerman, the Nats more than likely would have contended for a Wild Card spot this year.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.