US Presswire photo
Sean Burnett bailed out Henry Rodriguez by recording the game's final two outs.
"You bring in the closer and everybody's like: Whew," Craig Stammen said. "Take a little break."
These days, when Henry Rodriguez takes the mound for the ninth inning, the rest of the Nationals bullpen stands at the ready, knowing it may not be long before someone else's services are needed.
Monday night, it took only two wayward Rodriguez pitches before the phone rang inside the visitors pen at Citizens Bank Park. Sean Burnett immediately sprang into action.
"Once the phone rings," the left-hander said, "it's go time."
So for the second time in a week, Burnett was summoned to bail out Rodriguez. And for the second time in a week, he pulled it off, this time preserving a 2-1 victory over the Phillies.
Had Burnett not been able to do it, had he not stranded the tying runner on second base, everything positive that took place for the Nationals over the previous 2 hours and 40 minutes would have gone to waste.
Gio Gonzalez's six scoreless innings and nine strikeouts, giving him the major-league lead in punchouts, a 6-1 record and a sparkling 1.98 ERA to go along with it? Would've been thrown out the window.
Ian Desmond's continued power display out of the No. 5 spot in the lineup, highlighted in this game by his seventh home run of the season? Would've been an afterthought.
Two more scoreless innings of relief from Stammen, suddenly one of the most-dominant setup men in baseball? Would've become a footnote.
Yes, the Nationals owe Burnett a month's worth of free dinners after this one, even if he remained modest about the job he performed.
"I'm just going to do what they ask me to do, the way it's always been," he said. "I'm just trying to help the team out."
The scenario: Leading 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth and having dominated every aspect of this game, the Nationals needed only to record three more outs. As Davey Johnson has learned -- sometimes in painful fashion -- those final three outs are no picnic, especially when Rodriguez is involved.
Johnson, though, has seen his regular closer (Drew Storen) and his backup closer (Brad Lidge) succumb to injury, so he has tried to stand behind his third-string option and give Rodriguez opportunities to right his wayward ship. It nearly ended in disaster again, though.
It took only two pitches to John Mayberry -- neither of which could be handled by catcher Jesus Flores -- to realize Rodriguez didn't have it on this night. The call was placed to the bullpen and Burnett began warming up in a hurry as Rodriguez tried to hold down the fort.
"I've never done it before," Johnson said of having an emergency closer warming up so quickly after the ninth inning begins.
It's a good thing he did, though, because Rodriguez's inning continued to spiral out of control. He walked Mayberry on four pitches, retired Freddy Galvis on a flyball, uncorked a wild pitch, allowed a single to Mike Fontenot, then uncorked another wild pitch (his MLB-leading eighth in only 18 innings of work) to put the runners on second and third and bring Johnson from the dugout.
"Henry threw another wild pitch, and that was it for me," the manager said.
Burnett was thrust into quite a jam. Not only was the tying run now in scoring position, but the Phillies were going to send up a pair of right-handed pinch-hitters to face him in Ty Wigginton and Hector Luna.
What was Burnett's gameplan in that situation?
"You could give me one," he said with a laugh. "I don't have one. Just try to get two more outs before they get two runs. That was all I was trying to do. If it was groundballs, strikeouts, however it got done. Just looking to get outs before they scored."
Which he managed to do. Mayberry did tag up and score on Wigginton's sacrifice fly to right. And Luna did draw a walk to prolong the suspense. But Burnett ultimately got Placido Polanco to line out to second base, and the entire Nationals dugout could breathe a sigh of relief at last.
At the same time, there was concern and sympathy for Rodriguez, who officially has blown only three save opportunities but has now needed someone to bail him out twice in a week and faces an uncertain future.
"He's never been a closer before, on our team," Desmond said. "He's got to learn. It's not easy coming in in the ninth inning. Ask anybody. ... Coming from a guy that's booted more balls than probably anybody in the big leagues, it's a mental thing. You want to do so good, and you want to help the team win. Every time he comes up there, I'm rooting for him. I know the next time he comes out, he's going to do better. It's the same thing I went through, just different aspect, different position."
Whether Rodriguez gets another opportunity to pitch the ninth inning anytime soon remains to be seen.
"I'm going to sleep on it," Johnson said. "But I'm looking at alternatives."