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Thom Loverro: Nationals' Johnson is back on the big stage

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Thom Loverro

Some of you Washington baseball fans who are a little late to the game have likely come to appreciate Davey Johnson, both as the Nationals manager and entertainer.

He makes winning fun, and not all managers do that (see 2007 Cleveland Indians, Eric Wedge).

But, as they say in show business, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Johnson has returned to the big stage -- baseball's postseason -- and won't shrink from the spotlight. He may have come up short his last two times in Baltimore, losing the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997 after falling victim to the historic Jeffrey Maier interference at Yankee Stadium and then Armando Benitez's gopher balls at Camden Yards the following year.

Win or lose, though, he will give you something to talk about. Though they lost to the Indians in the 1997 ALCS, Johnson put on a memorable October show, one still talked about in legendary terms these days.

It was the opening game of the AL Division Series against the Mariners in Seattle. The Orioles had a powerful but significantly weighted left-handed lineup. Rafael Palmeiro had powered the offense that year with 38 home runs and 110 RBIs. Roberto Alomar, a switch hitter limited to the left side because of injuries, batted .333 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs, and B.J. Surhoff had 18 home runs and 88 RBIs.

None of them were in the starting lineup.

The numbers made sense -- Palmeiro was 1-for-21 lifetime against hard-throwing left-hander Randy Johnson -- Surhoff was 2-for-12 and Alomar was 8-for-37 batting from the left side.

But it wasn't like Davey Johnson had Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and himself as options on the bench. Numbers or not, Johnson was going to start a division series game with 70 home runs and 258 RBIs on the bench.

The players Johnson in the lineup instead had a combined 28 home runs and 91 RBIs that season.

Jerome Walton had played just 26 games that year, with three home runs and nine RBIs. He replaced Palmeiro at first.

Jeff Reboulet was a utility infielder who played in 99 games mostly at second, third and shortstop. He had four home runs, 27 RBIs and a .237 average and replaced Alomar at second.

And the often-injured Jeffrey Hammonds, who did hit 21 home runs and drove in 55 runs, replaced Surhoff in the outfield.

It was as gutsy a move as you will ever see a manager make on such a big stage.

Hammonds walked twice and scored twice. Reboulet delivered a key two-strike sacrifice bunt that put runners in scoring position for Eric Davis' two-run single that gave the Orioles a 4-1 lead. Walton went hitless in two at-bats, but the overall idea worked. Randy Johnson left the game after just five innings, having thrown 100 pitches, giving up five runs on seven hits and four walks, and the Orioles, behind Mike Mussina, won 9-3.

"I'll bet no one in history has ever started a playoff series by sitting down their leading home run hitter and RBI guy," Orioles general manager Pat Gillick said after the game. "But it's the logical thing to do."

It was the Davey Johnson thing to do. Let's see what he does now.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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