One morning in spring training Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw pulled aside first baseman Nick Johnson and delivered a simple but stern directive: "We need you to be the Man this year. How we do this season depends on you. Can you handle that?"
The soft-spoken, 26-year-old cleanup hitter has delivered a resounding yes with the best start of his five-year career. After adjusting his swing and changing his approach at the plate, the lefthanded hitter has put up big numbers--.335 batting average and 38 RBIs--and so too have the Nationals (37-26), who had won 10 straight through Sunday and led the National League East by 1 1/2 games over the Phillies.
With timely hitting-- Johnson's .404 average with runners in scoring position was third in the league--and slick defense at first, the scruffy, goateed former Yankee has become the face of the gritty Nationals, who had come from behind in 12 of their last 14 wins and were 16-7 in one-run games. Last Thursday against the A's, for example, Johnson drilled a three-run double, giving Washington a 4-3 victory and marking the fifth time this season that he had driven in the game-winner.
"Entering the season we had players with track records, like [rightfielder] Jose Guillen and [third baseman] Vinny Castilla, who we knew were going to have productive seasons," says general manager Jim Bowden. "What Nick would do was unknown. We needed another hitter who could drive in 80, 90 runs. Nick has been that guy--and more."
After batting .251 in 73 games last season Johnson worked with McCraw in spring training to alter his swing in a way that would enable him to pull the ball more. "[Pitchers] used to bombard him inside, and they were successful because Nick's footwork during his swing was too complicated and slow to allow him to get to those pitches," says McCraw. "He couldn't pull anything. We simplified the movement [of his feet]. Now he can get to pitches he couldn't before, and he's driving the ball to all fields."
Johnson has also been more aggressive at the plate and no longer takes the first pitch every at bat. "I'm stepping to the plate more prepared to swing," says Johnson, who through Sunday had been putting the first pitch in play on one out of every nine at bats this year compared with once every 28 at bats in 2004.
Johnson's torrid hitting is one explanation for the surprising start by Washington, which was picked to finish last in the division in most preseason forecasts. Another is the late-inning relief supplied by righthanders Luis Ayala, Gary Majewski and closer Chad Cordero (18 saves), who had a combined 2.00 ERA. "We don't think this start is a fluke at all," Bowden says. "We think we can keep winning games."