Earlier this week, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams ran into a couple of problems with strategery. The Nationals lost two very winnable games in St. Louis to the Cardinals, as Casey Janssen melted down twice. The right-hander was allowed to throw 26 pitches during Monday’s 8-5 loss to the Cardinals, allowing four earned runs and surrendering the lead in the process. Drew Storen, who had only pitched once in the previous three days, was seemingly unavailable as the world crashed down around Janssen because the meltdown came in the seventh inning. Storen is Williams’ eighth inning guy.
The very next evening, Janssen was right back out there (despite having thrown 26 pitches the night before), and the result was not that much different. This time, closer Jonathan Papelbon (the team’s only big addition at the deadline) stood in the bullpen and watched as Brandon Moss hit a walk-off, three-run home run. Papelbon did not pitch because he is Williams’ closer. Closers, apparently only pitch in the ninth inning when a team has a lead, their role set in stone. For the Nationals, the loss was the sixth walk-off loss of the season in which their designated closer — supposedly the team’s best reliever, did not throw a single pitch.
Bullpen management has been an issue for Williams during his tenure with the Nationals. It was a problem in the NLDS last year, and the trend has continued this season, but in Friday night’s 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves, Williams showed signs of flexibility. The result was a much-needed come-from-behind walk-off victory on a night that the New York Mets lost.
It was evident that Williams was going to have to work from the first pitch. Tanner Roark was making a spot start. Getting five innings from Roark would have been a victory for the Nationals. After Roark loaded the bases with one out in the fifth inning, Williams went to Matt Thornton even though Thornton had not entered a game prior to the sixth inning all year. The move paid off, as the veteran lefty wiggled off the hook without allowing a run.
After Storen allowed a run in the eighth inning, Williams faced a real test. With his team down only a run entering the ninth inning, the entire District of Columbia wanted Papelbon even though it was not a save situation. Williams obliged. He even brought his closer in on a double switch which would allow Papelbon to throw a second inning if required. Entering the game with Papelbon was Matt den Dekker. Keep that name in mind.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the Nationals facing a 2-1 deficit and Arodys Vizcaino‘s 0.44 ERA, Williams pressed all the right buttons. Yunel Escobar led off with a double. With two strikes, Williams trusted Ian Desmond to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The gutsy call paid off with Desmond’s fifth sacrifice bunt of the season. Then, with two outs, den Dekker delivered a game-tying single. Papelbon stayed on to pitch the tenth and put the Braves down in order.
There was time for one more move to pay off in the tenth for Williams. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman singled to start the inning. With the pitcher’s spot due up, Williams turned to rookie Michael Taylor for a pinch-hit appearance. Taylor had not played the past two games as the effects of a collision with the centerfield wall continued to linger. Taylor was also riding a 3-for-21 hot streak with runners in scoring position. None of that mattered on this night when everything seemed to go right for the Nationals. Taylor crushed a slider to left-center and the fans went home happy.
On a night in which he needed to make all the right decisions to secure a victory, Williams made them. Though his job may be in jeopardy following the end of this season, for one night at least Williams made all the right moves. He pulled his fill-in starter at the correct moment, went to his closer in a non-save situation and then allowed him to pitch two innings, and trusted his rookie pinch-hitter to get the job done. While 2015 may not be the season the Nationals hoped for, for one night, the manager could do no wrong. If the remaining five game deficit to the Mets is to be made up, the Nationals will need more than a few nights like this from Williams.