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The Streak remembered: Nick Johnson

Yes, I know this entry comes in the middle of perhaps the two biggest days in Nats history, but forgive me for being out of place. I'm going to flog this pony for another week, regardless of the happenings with the actual current club. Feel free to concentrate on Kilgore's far more pertinent posts.

Game 5, June 7
Nationals 2, Athletics 1
W: Armas (2-3)
L: Zito (2-7)
S: Cordero (16)

Of all the parts the Nationals brought to Washington from Montreal, Nick Johnson might have been the most unassuming. But when the left-handed first baseman faced lefty Barry Zito - at the time, one of the best lefties in the game - in the bottom of the sixth, he reminded the 26,879 on hand at RFK what a talented hitter he was. Johnson provided all the offense the Nationals would need with his two-run homer, his eighth of the year, on the first pitch he saw from Zito. He also walked, doubled - and picked a throw from second baseman Jamey Carroll out of the dirt in the ninth, preserving the victory, not to mention Chad Cordero's 16th save. At the end of the day, Johnson led the National League in batting average (.338), on-base percentage (.458), slugging percentage (.552), runs scored (31), hits (68) and RBI (35). To that point, he was 14 for 25 on the homestand. "I don't know if it's a groove," backup catcher Gary Bennett said, "or that's just him."

At end of the day: 32-26, first place in NL East by 1 game, and a first-round draft choice -- signed the same day -- named Ryan Zimmerman, a third baseman out of Virginia

That day was a version of the best Nick Johnson had to offer Washington: A superb hitter who could, back then, defend his position with the best in the league. Now, he is a designated hitter - an injured one, at that - with the New York Yankees, one for which five years ago seems a full career.

Can you remember those heady times in '05, Nick?

"If you can get my mind back that far," he said by phone.

So I offered Johnson a few memories. And it started to click.

"We had a veteran team, and I just remember the fans were unbelievable," Johnson said. "We had a bunch of guys that played and got after it. It goes back to pitching. We had Patterson, Loaiza, Livo ..."

I let him pause. "Ohka, for a while," I said. And he picked right up. "John Halama. C.J. Nitkowski."

I mean, I've been accused of being quasi-obsessed with the 2005 Nats over the past few weeks, and I hadn't given much of a thought to those guys. "Vinny Castilla at third," he said. "You hit it to him, you're out."

Anyway, Johnson finds himself now on the disabled list with the Yankees because of a wrist problem, and I caught up with him after a rehab session and a visit to the doctor. It's still "sore and stiff," but he'll start rebuilding strength, and he hopes to be back in the New York lineup perhaps in a month.

Johnson's tenure in Washington - and even his 2005 season - was marked as much by his injuries as by his abilities. "I've had some bizarre ones, you could say," he said. And the heel problem he suffered in 2005 fits right in.

"I remember it was a play at home plate," Johnson said. "It was a 'tweener, and I should've slid. I ended up standing up and letting all my weight come down. I ended up hitting my heel right on the plate, and I bruised my heel pretty bad."

On the day Johnson hurt the heel, June 26, he was hitting .320 with a .444 on-base percentage and a .508 slugging percentage. The Nats were 44-31, up by three games in the NL East. When he returned exactly a month later, they had gone 11-14, and the lead was down to a single game.

"Losing Nick Johnson, he was getting the big hit every night," Livan Hernandez told me. "That hurt."

Johnson missed all of 2007 with a broken leg and all but 38 games of 2008 with a separate wrist problem. But because he had a solid 2009 - highlighted by a .426 on-base percentage - he was in demand this offseason, enough so that the world champion Yankees, with whom he made his major league debut in 2001, wanted him back.

"For me, that's what it comes down to, winning and having that opportunity," he said. "When we were talking in the offseason, I wasn't even really thinking about coming here, because of Texeira. And my agent called and said, 'There's interest.' I just said, 'Let's do that.' I didn't think about the whole DH thing. I'd love to play first, but I wanted to win and have that opportunity."

And that informs Johnson's view of his tenure in Washington, which lasted from 2005 through the middle of 2009, when he was finally dealt to Florida at the trade deadline for minor-league lefty Aaron Thompson, who is 3-8 with a 6.46 ERA for Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse this year.

"I know we went out there and we played hard, whatever the record was," Johnson said. "We came up short. No matter what the payroll is or what other people say, when you step between the lines, you want to win, and we didn't do it. You can't come out there thinking, 'Oh, we're at $30 million [in payroll], and we have no chance.' If you do that, you might as well just take it do the house."

By Barry Svrluga  |  June 7, 2010; 3:59 PM ET
 | Tags: The Streak remembered  
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Comments

A first round draft choice signing on the same day? How novel.

Posted by: paulkp | June 7, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, real novel, it's been what, an entire year since that happened for the Nats last?

Posted by: cassander | June 7, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Barry, keep these great memories coming. It's nice to recall some of the better moments in the Nats' young history in D.C., even as a brighter future unfolds before our very eyes.

Posted by: BoteMan | June 7, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

The Streak remembered. Except for the weekend, when you forgot about it.

Posted by: nunof1 | June 7, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Bless you, Barry, for this hype-free-zone entry. Seriously. Please feel free to flog away as long as you like, as far as this fan is concerned.

I still have fond memories of the spring training where you polled the fans regarding possibilities for big Nick's (AKA The Man of 1,000 Facial-Hair Configurations) next hair style, and when we voted for "shave lightning bolts onto the sides of his head," he did it. Gotta love him for that. And, yeah, the dude could hit some, too. :-)

I do recall the heel injury (I think it was vs. Toronto?), but my most vivid - and horrible - injury-related memory was when he broke his leg in New York. One thing that did impress me in that game, I believe that some of the NY fans did a "roll call" for him as he was carted off. There must have been Yankee fans among them who recalled his days with that team. I was so happy for him when he was finally able to take the field again after his long recovery from that injury. I wish him good fortune and good health. He was one of my fave "original Nats."


Posted by: natsfan1a1 | June 7, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, you owe a couple of extras, Blogfather. :-)

---

The Streak remembered. Except for the weekend, when you forgot about it.

Posted by: nunof1 | June 7, 2010 5:46 PM

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | June 7, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I always thought the Nats dropped from contention in '05 because of Johnson's injury. He was such a key to their success. I have the same feeling about Pudge and the 2010 Nats; we began our slide this year after he was hurt. Let's hope he returns for good this week and we can get the party started again.

Posted by: Natsgal | June 7, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

I guess I should've mentioned that I did not file a streak entry on Sunday, June 6, because it was an off day for the Nats in 2005, the one off day during the streak. I did file a Ryan Church entry on Saturday.

Just so we're clear. And man, y'all remain a feisty group.

Posted by: BarrySvrluga | June 7, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Barry.... Thank you so much for the recent history you've reminded us of. Nich Johnson was my favorite Nationals player -- always made it to base! And Vinny Castilla was just special. I wish I had a copy of the history of the Nationals from the other day. I tried to email you, but no success. But Livan was right on -- we had seasoned players and they loved baseball!

Posted by: susandea | June 7, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Excuse that typo, Nick Johnson!

Posted by: susandea | June 7, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

LOL! Ah, now I see. In that case, you might have posted an off-day-bickering simulation thread for us (though, of course, it's never been as common during winning streaks as during losing streaks). ;-)

---

I guess I should've mentioned that I did not file a streak entry on Sunday, June 6, because it was an off day for the Nats in 2005, the one off day during the streak. I did file a Ryan Church entry on Saturday.

Just so we're clear. And man, y'all remain a feisty group.

Posted by: BarrySvrluga | June 7, 2010 6:27 PM

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | June 7, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

The NY fans did a what, 1a?

Posted by: Scooter_ | June 7, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

The NY fans did a what, 1a?

Posted by: Scooter_ | June 7, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Keep it coming Barry!! That was a magical time for all of us who were yearning for years to get MLB back in Washington. That was a team that was expected to stink up the joint, but instead gave us an incredible joy ride. I was at 3 of the streak games, something I’ll never forget.

Posted by: NatsMan21 | June 7, 2010 8:42 PM | Report abuse

Kinda like this, Scooter:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvOTBo85y08&feature=related

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | June 7, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

Just now made it back here. Thanks, 1a. I had never heard of such a thing, but it's cute.

(On a more personal note, looks like I managed my first double post! YES!)

Posted by: Scooter_ | June 8, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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