Commentary

Harper, Strasburg recall Doc, Straw

Nats manager Davey Johnson has experience guiding young phenoms to stardom

Updated: July 26, 2012, 11:35 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals were about to polish off a series sweep of the nose-diving Mets in Wednesday's noon finale at Citi Field, and 69-year-old Nats manager Davey Johnson admitted it brought back memories, all right, to be back in the same patch of Queens where he once presided over the '80s Mets of Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry when they were kid phenoms, same as his kid stars Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg are for the Nationals now.

But one big difference is Gooden never had to deal with the innings limit Strasburg is currently facing because he's in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. And Johnson's good mood evaporated in a heartbeat before the game when a beat reporter asked him if, rather than shut down Strasburg before the regular season ends as planned, there were not some way the first-place Nats could change their mind and start spacing out his starts so that ...

Stephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaStephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are tearing up the National League this year.

"NAH, I'm not going to get into any of that spacing CRAP!" Johnson interrupted, his voice suddenly rising. "I'm not discussing anymore what's happening in a month! I know people are interested, but it's something that's seven, eight starts from now. Why even talk about it, you know?"

But what if you shut him down for a period of time now, the same reporter persisted a few minutes later, so you could have Strasburg back for the postseason?

"No -- no!" Johnson said. "You just don't do that. If you're trying to take care of an arm, you don't shut somebody down and then crank 'em back up. What we're trying to do is have him for a long time. So jockeying him around, putting him in as the fourth starter, missing starts -- that's not good for THAT."

Well then, how about using Strasburg only in relief as the Yankees once did with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain to keep them alive for the postseason?

"No possibility -- no possibility," Johnson said, crossing his arms now.

Case closed.

Johnson's shows of irascibility, like the leavening doses of humor and baseball insights he doled out before and after the game, were all yet more proof of why Johnson is the perfect manager for this Nationals club, but especially the 19-year-old Harper and 23-year-old Strasburg at this formative stage of their careers.

Washington's 5-2 victory Wednesday was a self-assured, total team effort, same as its other wins in this series. What it also underscored was the talent gap between the Nationals and the Mets, who slink off now to a forbidding 11-game West Coast road trip having lost six in a row, and 11 of 12 since the All-Star break. "Gotta have the firepower," one Nats player said, when asked about the Mets' swoon after such a promising start to the season.

The Nats (58-39) smacked three home runs Wednesday, and Strasburg struck out 11 and walked none while scattering four hits in seven crisp innings of work. He improved his record to 11-4 while Harper, Washington's starting left fielder, got on base twice, scoring once.

Johnson said one of the things he liked most about Strasburg's outing was the right-hander continues to follow his advice to work on becoming a pitcher, not just a fireballer throwing "100 mph and going up the ladder" all the time to live up to the "media hype."

Johnson knows the 24/7 hype and scrutiny that both Strasburg and Harper face is far different from what Strawberry and Gooden had to shoulder as part of his "Wild Bunch" Mets team that won the '86 World Series. Gooden and Strawberry debuted in 1984, and the Mets quickly became the sports story in New York. These Nationals are tame compared with that hell-raising bunch, which also included Lenny Dykstra and Keith Hernandez, and became known for antics like tearing up the team's charter plane during a victory celebration on the way home from winning the '86 National League Championship Series -- only to have Johnson call a team meeting after Mets management gave him a letter from the airline asking that the players pay for the damage.

As legend has it, Johnson stood in the middle of the clubhouse, ripped the letter to shreds as his Mets players looked on, and then half-smiled, half-growled, "There wouldn't have even been a victory celebration if it wasn't for us."

"Aw ... heh heh ... well, that -- that story was a little blown out of proportion," Johnson insisted Wednesday, trying to suppress a smile. "Tearing up the plane, why, that was the wives that done that --"

Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden
AP Photo/Richard DrewDarryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden formed a phenomenal tandem for Davey Johnson during his days with the Mets.

"Oh, the wives," I repeated, then burst into laughter.

"That's right, the wives," Johnson nodded, laughing a little now himself about what a spectacularly big fat lie this was. "My guys were pretty good," he continued. "They knew to put their beer cans in the garbage can."

Then he laughed again.

"Managing is a lot like being a guidance counselor," he said.

The burden of making sure nothing happens to Strasburg and Harper while they're on the way to greatness like Gooden and Strawberry were is the sort of burden that might overwhelm a manager who hasn't seen as much as Johnson has. There aren't many others who can throw off the been-there, done-that mix of humor and combativeness that Johnson brings as the Nats try to stay ahead of Atlanta in the National League East.

But it's easy to see Johnson's influence on both players.

The look-at-me antics that earned Harper a sketchy reputation before he even hit the big leagues are largely gone. And that had to help him become a late addition to the All-Star Game roster.

Strasburg, who also made the All-Star team, is often apologetic about how injuries have prevented him from being the 200-inning, top-of-the-rotation workhorse for the Nats that he intends to be -- a shortcoming that he said he felt "guilty" about last season when he was rehabbing, and a wish he again volunteered after beating the Mets Wednesday, when asked about being shut down before the end of the season. "I want to be a horse they can count on," he said.

But Johnson seems to perfectly toe the line between absolving Strasburg from any lapse back into self-consciousness about not being able to finish the season contributing to what could be a Nats playoff team and yet not treating him like a sacred cow. And that plays well in the Nationals clubhouse, too. "He reminds me a lot of Bobby Cox," Washington veteran Mark DeRosa says. "He protects his players, he lets you be who you are and trusts us to police ourselves. Yet you still always know who's in charge. And because he's funny, he gets away with saying a lot of things other people can't."

Back in May, Johnson had a pretty good laugh after finding out that he'd apparently embarrassed Strasburg by telling reporters the unvarnished truth of why Strasburg had to come out of a game after just four innings: Johnson said Strasburg had some "hot rub" trickle down Strasburg's body to a place "it shouldn't have" -- meaning Strasburg's jock strap -- which made Strasburg uncomfortable as he pitched. The Washington Post reported that Strasburg seemed a bit "miffed" when asked to confirm Johnson's explanation.

"You know, I'm going to keep that in the clubhouse," Strasburg said.

Too late.

Johnson now says, "I never try to change any player's personality because I figure that's the one that got him here." And the same could be said about him.

So far, Johnson is keeping Strasburg and Harper sailing along ahead of schedule. And together, they're keeping the Nationals in first place. Which is the biggest reason they're reminding people of Doc and Strawberry as they go. They're not tearing up planes, just the league.

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