By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Depending on who you ask on the Washington Nationals, Davey Johnson can be painfully blunt, a little goofy, or explosive.
But whatever tag the players want to place on their 69-year-old manager, they all agree that the club would not be the champions of the National League East without him.
"He's a players' manager," said southpaw pitcher Gio Gonzalez, a Cy Young Award contender whose 21 wins are tops in the majors. "He's a guy that wants to win just like we do.
"He feels for us every time we go out there. He lets the team be the team and lets us win ball games. He's not a guy to step on our toes and try to change our ways.
"He lets us be us, play our music, and go out there and have fun. But when he steps in, he plays a big role for us."
The Nationals, whose 96-64 record is tied for the best in baseball entering Tuesday's games, clinched the division crown on Monday and are within reach of the first pennant in the franchise's 44-year existence.
Johnson has near-deity status in a success-hungry town that has not hosted a World Series since 1933 when the Washington Senators lost to the New York Giants in five games.
It is perhaps ironic that baseball's oldest manager is in charge of the game's best group of youngsters, including the 21-year-old Gonzalez and 19-year-old rookie All-Star Bryce Harper.
"He's calm, he just stays the same no matter what," said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "As a baseball player you respect that because it's such an up and down game. If a manager stays the same, it rubs off on your players.
"But he's very honest. Sometimes that's not the easiest thing to be. There are times as a player you don't want to hear something. They tell you, you're mad, and then about 10 minutes later you realize it was good that someone told you that.
"He won't cause a scene but takes care of the business that needs to be taken care of. But make no mistake, he's still as fiery and competitive as anyone."
Johnson became the Nationals' manager in June of last year when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned over the team's failure to offer him a multi-year contract.
He had been a special assistant to general manager Mike Rizzo and moved into the role many feel he had been hired to inherit.
Rizzo said Johnson, a former World Series champion as both a player and manager, brought "a steady hand and years of experience" to the Nationals' dugout.
"The players respect him because he's done what they're trying to do," said Rizzo. "He's been a winner at every level, battle tested, and proved it already. He's proved his mettle."
Until this year, the Nationals had not had a winning season since arriving in Washington in 2005. No one, however -- not even the most ardent fan -- saw a turnaround this quickly.
Johnson, who is often seen joking with his players looking more like their peer than their grandfather-aged boss, is the likely recipient of the National League's Manager of the Year award.
When asked about the award, Johnson shrugged, and said winning it "would be nice." But what he really wants is to deliver Washington its first World Series title since 1924.
"It's fun to be considered by your peers to have had a decent year," he said. "But it's not a big deal to me.
"It's always been about what the team is doing as a group. Being in the playoffs is step one. Winning the division is step two. And then winning the World Series, step three."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)