When Davey Johnson got his first managerial gig with the New York Mets in 1984 he took over a franchise that had lost 94-plus games in six of its previous seven seasons, and the only reason it didn't happen in the seventh season was due to the 1981 strike. The Mets won 90 games in 1984, and a key reason why was Johnson's insistence that a 19-year-old rookie named Dwight Gooden make the club out of spring training.
He believed in Wally Backman when few did. He gave playing time to a little 22-year-old, tobacco-chewing outfielder named Lenny Dykstra over high-priced veteran George Foster. Sparky Anderson didn't think Howard Johnson could play; traded to the Mets, HoJo became a star.
Davey Johnson knows talent. OK, so everybody believed in Bryce Harper's talent. But Johnson sat behind a table during the winter meetings in December and told reporters how much he loved this kid. When he told the story of how he tried to convince the Mets' general manager that Gooden was ready for the big leagues, the implication was clear: Bryce Harper, even though he had played only 37 games above Class A ball -- and would play the entire 2012 season at 19 years old -- was ready for the big leagues.
Johnson's belief in Harper is the reason he hasn't removed Harper from the No. 2 spot in the Washington Nationals' batting order, even as Harper's batting averaged plummeted from .282 at the All-Star break to .245 on Aug. 15. For Johnson, it has always been about talent and his view isn't that Harper is a 19-year-old kid, but a major leaguer with off-the-charts ability. Leave him in the two-hole and let the talent win out.
Harper hit two home runs on Wednesday. He hit another on Thursday -- a two-run, first-inning shot off Jaime Garcia -- to help lead the Nationals to an 8-1 victory. It's Johnson's faith in his 19-year-old center fielder that makes Harper one of the most important players as we head into the season's final month. Is he bouncing back from this recent dry spell? Is the home run off Garcia a sign that he should continue to bat second against left-handers? Will his inexperience in center lead to a crucial misplay? Will he wear down?
The Nationals have a lot to play for in September, as they try to hold off the Braves for the NL East title with Stephen Strasburg's season nearing its end. They're neck-and-neck with the Reds for the best record in the league and home-field advantage throughout the postseason (although the Nationals do have the best road record in the majors). Harper's September will be key to securing that No. 1 seed.
Here are nine more important players as we head down the homestretch:
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
A-Rod begins his rehab Friday at Class A Tampa. With Curtis Granderson struggling (.194 in August), Mark Teixeira out with a calf injury, Russell Martin hitting .197 and Raul Ibanez showing his age, the Yankees will need A-Rod to produce when he returns if they want to hold off the Orioles and Rays.
James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates
Dominant in the first half when he went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, .196 average allowed and 100/31 SO/BB ratio, McDonald has hit the wall since, going 3-3 with a 6.24 and 41/30 SO/BB ratio in the second half. He has allowed no runs in two of his past three starts, however, giving Pirates fans hope that they'll see the first-half McDonald down the stretch.
Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Dodgers
The state of the Dodgers' rotation: Chad Billingsley, likely out for the season; Chris Capuano, five or more runs allowed in four of his past seven starts; Joe Blanton, 6.67 ERA in five starts since joining the Dodgers. OK, Clayton Kershaw is pretty good. The Dodgers paid a hefty price for the expectation that Beckett will be better than he showed with the Red Sox.
Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox
He leads the American League with 38 home runs, but after hitting .230/.378/.556 through May, he has hit a far less scary .190/.310/.444 (not including an 0-for-4 on Thursday). The White Sox could use one of his patented power streaks.
Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
We've been pointing to Tim Lincecum all season and it still holds that the Giants' one-time ace needs to spin off a few good starts in a row, but what about Pence? He's hit just .230 with the Giants with two home runs in 28 games. With Melky Cabrera spending the rest of the season on a beach somewhere, the Giants are counting on Pence as that bat behind Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey.
Brett Anderson, Oakland A's
The most amazing aspect of the A's grip on a wild card is the current shuffling Bob Melvin has had to do with the rotation. Bartolo Colon's suspension came right as Anderson returned to make his first starts following Tommy John surgery in July 2011. His first two starts have been brilliant: 14 innings, six hits, one run, 11 K's, two walks, low pitch counts. It's the Brett Anderson, strike-throwing machine, that everyone fell in love with his first two seasons in the majors. The A's have a brutal schedule the rest of the way: BOS, LAA, @SEA, @LAA, BAL, @DET, @NYY, @TEX, SEA, TEX. They'll need more gems from Anderson.
Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
At this point, the Braves' rotation is unlikely to suddenly improve. Craig Kimbrel will continue closing out the leads he gets. That means it's up to the offense to carry the Braves into the playoffs. As the curtain closes on Chipper Jones' Hall of Fame career, it has been exciting to see Heyward step up of late. With seven home runs and a .607 slugging percentage over his past 21 games, he's showing why this will be his team in 2013.
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
He was unbeatable down the stretch a year ago, but no pitcher has thrown more pitches over the past two seasons than Verlander. He hasn't won any of his past four starts (although only the eight-run beating in Kansas City was his fault). After starting August with six straight wins, the Tigers have gone an uninspiring 9-11. Getting swept by the Royals is hardly an indication that this is a playoff team. Mr. Verlander, it's your time.
The Baltimore Orioles' bullpen
OK, this is a group, but it's the reason the Orioles are just three games behind the Yankees and currently front-runners for a wild-card spot. The Orioles are 24-6 in one-run games, which would be the best winning percentage in history. The O's don't score a lot of runs; the rotation is scrambling to fill holes with the likes of Joe Saunders and now Randy Wolf. Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop and company need a lockdown final 32 games.
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