Washington Nationals: How Rizzo-Johnson Fight Will Affect NL East Playoff Race

Colin Kennedy@ColinKennedy10Featured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 01:  Manager Davey Johnson #5 and general manager Mike Rizzo of the Washington Nationals talk before the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park on July 1, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Just days after Davey Johnson was heard telling his boss, "You come down and manage the team" (via MLB.com), the Nationals skipper has insisted that all is well in the Nationals clubhouse. 

They just might want to use their inside voices next time around.

Washington was coming off a four-game losing streak and a series sweep at the hands of division-rival Philadelphia last Sunday afternoon when some heated words were exchanged between Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo at Citizens Bank Park.

As the first signs of uncertainty emerged from a remarkably stable front office, unavoidable drama ensued. Commotion surrounded the nation's capital heading into an off day that featured limitless speculation about the potential power struggle in Washington. 

The Nationals would continue their skid in Miami on Tuesday when Stephen Strasburg pitched the worst game of his career in at 9-0 shutout at Marlins Park. Washington's losing streak was extended to five games in embarrassing fashion, and the spat between Johnson and Rizzo was inevitably at the center of questioning. 

But a week later, the rift has been seemingly forgotten in D.C. 

Three consecutive victories against the Marlins and Cardinals helped smooth things over in Washington momentarily. And after a dominating outing from Strasburg handed the Nationals their fourth win in five tries, order seems to have been restored in the nation's capital. 

The NL East lead has been extended to seven games (in the loss column), and the Nats are hosting the National League's second-worst team, the Cubs, for a four-game set. 

Rizzo and Johnson have reassured anyone who will listen that the small spat held no significance and that their decade-long relationship hasn't been strained, according to James Wagner of the Washington Post. 

An exchange the two declined to elaborate on was widely underplayed throughout the organization—and expectedly so. 

Thomas Boswell writes that the Johnson-Rizzo relationship has been rock-solid since the GM hired the former manager as a special adviser in 2009. 

And though this rather common but typically unseen sort of argument shouldn't change anything in the Nationals front office, it appears to have had implications on the playing field. 

Let's take a look at how the Johnson-Rizzo exchange will affect the NL East playoff race.


Wake-Up Call

An atypical appearance from Mike Rizzo in the visitor’s dugout before Tuesday’s contest helped reaffirm the solid relationship Washington’s GM has with his manager.

The two chuckled playfully, James Wagner of the Nationals Journal said, as Johnson grasped Rizzo in a headlock during their pregame media session.

But Washington’s players didn’t get the memo.

At least not yet. 

An embarrassing 9-0 shutout was highlighted by multiple unforced errors and Stephen Strasburg’s worst career outing, as the losing streak extended to a season-high five games.

Concern became evident when postgame questions reached beyond the traveling circus that is Strasburg’s pending innings limit. Panic spread slowly throughout as fans watched their divisional lead dwindle.

But on Wednesday, the Nationals did what they have done all year.

They won.

Ross Detwiler was the stopper, and Bryce Harper’s first multi-homer game led the way offensively for Washington, who stopped the bleeding with an 8-4 victory over the Marlins.

It might have taken 24 hours to settle in, but Johnson’s exchange with Rizzo Sunday night was a wake-up call.

While critics circled August 26th on their calendars to mark the beginning of an epic collapse they boldly predicted back in April, the Nationals used it as fuel to reinvigorate the troops for the final stretch of baseball.

Two more victories over the Cardinals followed Wednesday’s turnaround in Miami, and an offensive outburst suggested Washington wanted to make a statement in the National League.

The Nats outscored their opponents 26-5 following Tuesday’s loss in Miami. A 10-0 pounding of the Cardinals on Friday gave Johnson’s club its third win in as many games.

Now, a victory in four of its last five contests has the team from D.C. atop the NL East by a comfortable 6.5 games. An upcoming series in Atlanta looms large, but continual consistency from Nationals starters should propel the squad into October. 

Thanks to a little wake-up call from their manager perhaps. 


Clear the Air 

One thing that has come from the ongoing discussion in the Nationals front office is some solidarity concerning the pending shutdown of Stephen Strasburg. 

After a bounce-back performance against the Cardinals on Sunday in which Washington's ace allowed just two hits and struck out nine through six innings, an unofficial date was finally named, according to The Washington Times

September 12.

It hasn't been confirmed by GM Mike Rizzo, and it probably won't be, but next Wednesday's game against the Mets at Citi Field figures to be Strasburg's last of 2012. 

The organization hasn't backed down from its stance all season.

An identical long-term plan that the Nationals used to nurse Jordan Zimmermann back to full health has been attached to Strasburg since opening day. And with 156.1 innings under his belt to date, the 180-inning maximum is in sight. 

Perhaps the most controversial story in baseball this year appears to be coming to a close. Proponents of the innings limit (if there are any) can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their ace will be 100 percent next April if all goes as planned in the next 10 days. 

Critics will continue to complain. 

Sure, it is easy to push Strasburg from a fan's perspective. With no financial obligations to the pitcher or the franchise, it might be worth the risk to trot the ace back out there a few more times. 

But we're talking about one of the most electric arms the game has ever seen. 

If the rift between Johnson and Rizzo has shown us anything, it's that the rift between Johnson and Rizzo didn't mean anything. 

Communication among the front office hasn't been affected, and the recent announcement regarding Strasburg's pending cap has revealed that everyone in D.C. is on the same page. 

Just like any other sport, stress is going to surface during tough times—and it reared its ugly head on Sunday night. 

But as we all know, winning cures all.

And thats just what the Nationals have done.

Don't expect to see Davey Johnson looking for work anytime soon, Astros fans. 

He's taken. 


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