Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Josh Willingham continued his hot streak with a three-run homer.
You never know what's going to happen when you show up at the ballpark these days. You might see one team play under protest because the other team submitted a lineup card with a starting pitcher who was in the minor leagues. You might see the toughest home-run park in the majors surrender two big blasts. You might see the most-successful closer in the big leagues allow four straight singles to open the bottom of the ninth, put the game-winning run on first and then pitch his way out of the jam.
And sometimes you might just see all of that take place in the span of 2 hours and 29 minutes.
The Nationals' 5-3 victory over the Padres featured no shortage of unusual events, some which left everyone scrambling for the nearest copy of the rule book, some which just left everyone biting their fingernails with tension.
Where to begin with this one? How about at the beginning, since that's when the night's first oddity developed. San Diego starter Clayton Richard cruised through the top of the first with no trouble, and the two teams swapped sides, with John Lannan strolling to the mound for his first inning of work.
But what was this? Why are the umpires huddling with Riggleman, and why are they all looking at their lineup cards? Did someone make a mistake?
Oh, did they. The Padres inexplicably listed their starting pitcher and No. 9 hitter as right-hander Adam Russell. Who had been optioned to Class AAA Portland earlier in the day. Obviously, he didn't pitch the top of the first. Richard did.
"It's my nightmare," Riggleman said. "It's Casey Stengell's nightmare. It's the future managers of the world's nightmare that you're going to get that wrong name on there. I know I look at it 10 times. I have the coaches look at it over and over. Every now and then, one gets by."
So ... how exactly do they handle this one? Let's consult the aforementioned Rule 3.05(a), which reads in part: "The pitcher named in the batting order handed the umpire-in-chief ... shall pitch to the first batter or any substitute batter until such batter is put out or reaches first base, unless the pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the judgment of the umpire-in-chief, incapacitates him from pitching."
But what happens when the pitcher named in the batting order isn't the pitcher on the mound? Rule 3.05(c): "If an improper substitution is made for the pitcher, the umpire shall direct the proper pitcher to return to the game until the provisions of this rule are fulfilled."
So Russell was required to take over for Richard, who would then have to depart the game. The only problem: Russell was on a plane bound for Portland. He couldn't exactly be forced into a ballgame in San Diego.
As crew chief Tim Tschida explained to a pool reporter: "There's no way to fulfill that, given the fact that the pitcher named is not even in the area code."
So we continue through Rule 3.05(c), which adds: "If the improper pitcher is permitted to pitch, any play that results is legal. The improper pitcher becomes the proper pitcher as soon as he makes his first pitch to the batter, or as soon as any runner is put out."
In other words, there was nothing the umpires could do except let the game continue with Richard pitching for the Padres. The Nationals had the right to protest -- and they did -- but there was no realistic hope of Major League Baseball upholding such a protest.
"It's not going to hold up, because it doesn't change anything," Riggleman said. "He was their pitcher all along. We knew he was their pitcher. Just one of those human errors."
Watching all this unfold inside the Nationals' clubhouse, Matt Capps said what everyone else in a Washington uniform likely felt: "Just take it out of their hands, and let's win it."
Sure enough, the Nats went out and won the ballgame, making the lineup card blunder moot. They won because John Lannan authored his third straight strong start, putting his elbow troubles further behind him. They won because Josh Willingham crushed his fourth homer in six games, a three-run blast to straightaway center field in this cavernous ballpark. And they won because Ian Desmond homered in the seventh, then dropped a picture-perfect squeeze bunt in the top of the ninth to give his team a seemingly comfortable, 5-2 lead.
But ultimately the Nationals won because Capps managed to wriggle his way out of a nightmare of a jam: Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, nobody out, tying run on second, winning run on first.
How did Capps get out of that pickle and record his MLB-leading 17th save? By having the courage to throw a surprise pitch in a situation that left zero margin for error.
Capps is a fastball-first pitcher. He succeeds because he throws his bread-and-butter pitch for strikes. But with the count full against pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, catcher Wil Nieves called for a slider. The thinking: Stairs surely would be looking for a fastball. This would catch him napping.
"Wil called it. He was right on with it," Capps said. "He had confidence I could throw it for a strike there. I gave up a homer to Stairs in kind of a similar situation last year, and I knew he'd probably be looking for something hard. I felt like even if I threw down and out of the zone, there'd be a pretty good chance he'd swing at it."
Stairs didn't swing at it. He just stood there and watched Capps' slider pass right through the heart of the strike zone, too paralyzed with surprise to take the bat off his shoulder.
"Just tried to execute the pitch," Capps said. "The strikeout was a bonus."
The threat, though, still hadn't been extinguished. Capps still had to strike out Will Venable, then get David Eckstein to ground out to end the game.
Nats win, 5-3. Piece of cake, right?
Just as long as Riggleman doesn't turn in a lineup card tomorrow that lists his starting pitcher as "Strasburg."