Friday, April 16, 2010

Playing (and managing) to win

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ian Desmond's perfect sac bunt keyed the Nats' 3-run eighth.
Little did Jim Riggleman realize it when Adam Dunn was ejected in the first inning, but that surprise development was going to force the Nationals manager to reach deep into his bag of tricks in order to pull off tonight's 5-3 win over the Brewers.

By the time Matt Capps struck out Corey Hart to end this one, Riggleman had used three different third basemen, two different first basemen, two different right fielders and every member of his bench not named Ivan Rodriguez. He asked one his best young hitters to lay down a sacrifice bunt, his All-Star slugger to serve as a decoy in the on-deck circle and his closer to record the final two outs one day after throwing 33 pitches.

This is what it's going to take for the Nationals, as currently constructed, to win ballgames. Riggleman understands this, so he's finding a way to use all 25 players at his disposal in a manner that maximizes every ounce of talent they've got.

"There's a lot of players on this team able to play a lot of positions, and able to do it well," Dunn said. "It gives Riggs so much leeway to make moves that a lot of managers don't get to make. Our team's deep, man."

This just in: There's more to the Nationals than Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn.

And because of the performances of a lot of other guys, the Nats will wake up Saturday morning a .500 ballclub. They've pulled off back-to-back comeback wins against the Phillies and Brewers. Don't look now, but they lead the National League in games won when trailing after seven innings.

"We know that we can go out there and play, and we're going to win some ballgames," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I think it might be surprising some other people. But from spring training, we've been saying this is our year. We're definitely going to sneak up on some people."

There were all kinds of clutch performances tonight, from John Lannan's seven innings of two-run ball to Josh Willingham's solo homer and diving catch in left field to Adam Kennedy's two-run, go-ahead single in the eighth. But perhaps the most important plate appearance of the game came from Desmond, who dropped the prettiest sacrifice bunt you'll ever see in advance of Kennedy's big hit.

It's called "small ball," and while there are plenty of new-school stat-heads who insist it's bad baseball, sometimes it's necessary to win games.

"That's what you're supposed to do, as a teammate, as a ballplayer: Get that down," Desmond said. "After the first pitch, I kind of went out of my zone a little bit. I said, 'Let's go, you need to get this bunt down.' I locked in and put it down."

Desmond's bunt put the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on second for Kennedy. It also allowed Riggleman to play a little chess match with Milwaukee manager Ken Macha. Macha could have elected to intentionally walk Kennedy and load the bases for the Nats' next hitter. But instead of Wil Nieves in the on-deck circle, there was Zimmerman with bat in hand.

Would Riggleman have actually sent Zim up there in that spot? Probably not, because the pitcher's spot was due up next, and Ivan Rodriguez was the only player left on his bench. He wasn't going to burn his backup catcher in the eighth inning of a game that easily could have gone deep into the night.

But Macha couldn't take that chance, so he pitched to Kennedy, who promptly drilled a two-run single just past Prince Fielder's glove down the first-base line.

"The threat of Zimmerman there helped Kennedy get pitched to," Riggleman said. "You'd like to have Ryan in the lineup all the time, but when you can pick a spot to use him, it can put a little pressure on the other club."

So now the Nats led 4-3, and when Nieves delivered an RBI single of his own, the lead was up to two runs, affording Sean Burnett and Capps some breathing room for the ninth inning. No matter, the duo retired the Brewers in order and finished off another well-played, well-managed game by the Nationals.

"To win at this level, you have to play complete games of baseball," Willingham said. "That means you have to get timely hitting, which we got tonight. We got great starting pitching. And our bullpen pitched great. We played good defense. If you don't do all those things pretty well every night, you're probably not going to win a major-league baseball game."

Guess what? The Nationals have won five of their last eight major-league baseball games, and they've essentially been forced to play the last five without their best player.

No worries. There's a lot more to this team than Zimmerman. And it helps when the guy moving all the chess pieces around knows how best to use them.

"It's a good group to manage," Riggleman said.


No, I'm not sucking up said...

ooo, nice shot on the bunt, Mark.

Mac said...

Fantastic picture! We need to see some albums of your shots.

Farid Rushdi said...

Did you use some white-out to draw that ball in?

Seriously, nice image.

Last season, the Nationals won their fifth game of the season on April 29th--to go along with 15 losses.

I am not suggesting this is a plus-.500 team, but Riggleman is managing in a way that an 81-win season is just unlikely (which is a long way from "when hell freezes over).

Kudos, Jim. Keep it up.

Andrew said...

Did you take that photo all the way up there in the Press Box?

Nice to see them balls bounce in the Nats direction. When things aren't going well, that Kennedy hit past Fielder would have found its way to Fielder's glove.

5-5 Nice!

Andrew said...

The Orioles drop to 1-10. Milledge has a walkoff single for the Pirates and FLop drives in all the Cardinals runs with a Grand Slam in a Card 4-3 win over the Mets.

Sam said...

"Stat-heads" aren't arguing that teams shouldn't bunt or play "small ball" ever. In fact, in the situation that Desmond bunted, it probably wasn't a bad move. The point is, bunting generally does hurt you (unless a pitcher is up). There are certain situations in which doing "small ball" things help and some in which doing those things do not help. So called "stat-heads" only quantify and explain which situations would benefit from bunting.

Nattydread said...

...and Capps and Rauch lead the league in saves with 5 each.

natsfan1a said...

And the Mets are still alone in the cellar. :-)

NatsGirl said...

It's my understanding that the Japanese style (method? system?) of baseball is much more "small ball" with emphasis on advancing runners and doing what needs to be done for the team to win, and very little thought to the accomplishments or stats of the individual player. It looks like this the way the Nats have been playing, lately. I mean, the sac bunt never improves one's personal stats, but sure can help the team in the right situation.
Anyone watch Pro Yakyu?

Positively Half St. said...

It would be great to go over .500 today. Please make it happen, guys.

Anonymous said...

These ain't your daddys Nats anymore!! JTinSC

Tcostant said...

The smartest managing to win move was keeping John Lannan away from the Phils, his numbers vs. that team are just plain bad. Smart move holding him back the extra day.

Not sure what the spam is all about that Sun posted?

Section 222 said...

Riggleman's move heavy style of managing definitely keeps all of his players involved in the game and ready. It's been very interesting how Gonzales, Nieves, and others have stepped up. The loss of Zim for a few games may very well pay surprising dividends as the

Section 222 said...

duh. .... as the season goes forward.

Anonymous8 said...

This team showed a lot of fight. After falling behind in the 8th on what could have been a disaster on Alberto Gonzalez's errant throw putting men on 2nd and 3rd with no outs, the team limited the damage to 1 run and a 3-2 deficit.

In the bottom of the 8th, those 3 runs scored made this the best inning of the season so far!

Bruney who looked like he was going to be shelled got out with NO earned runs in the 8th and Riggleman's one batter strategy in the 9th with Burnett going lefty to lefty was the way you play this game.

The steal by Kennedy off of Hawkins which allowed him to score that 1 run that gave the Nats a 2 run lead, was huge. Riggleman, with the game on the line, made ALL of the right moves.

My only real negative was the earlier opportunities in the game squandered and the Guzy untimely double play and horrible pinch hit at-bat by Maxwell. I TiVO'd and re-watched and Justin is totally lost. He reminds me of a kid in rec ball who only walks or strikes out. Rizzo better quickly evaluate this situation before it turns into the same disaster as in 2009 when Maxwell never got a hit in his first stint with the Nats. We can all love this kid but I would rather do it watching him in Syracuse if he can't be productive here. Sending Bernadina who was "hot" back to Syracuse in favor of Maxwell didn't make sense to me to get that extra righy bat.

Also to the critics of bunting, I don't like giving up outs but if you have players who bunt for hits like Nyjer Morgan, I say go for it!

Janner33 said...

@Wally - if you add a (iv) All of the above, I would gladly vote for that one!

Anonymous said...

I have bad mouthed this club so far during this season. But, they are finally starting to look like a team. Hang in there until we get some more pitching support from the minors and also improved pitching from our staff.

Anonymous said...

For those of you who thought Philly fans behaved poorly in DC, they do so in Philly as well.,234711

Mike said...

I'm on board with small ball at the right time. Last night in the eighth inning was the right time.

CoverageisLacking said...

"No worries. There's a lot more to this team than Zimmerman. And it helps when the guy moving all the chess pieces around knows how best to use them."

Many of the people who defended Acta last year questioned what he could have done differently. They said that nothing was his fault, because the team was awful.

Well, last night was a textbook example of what a manager can do when he actually thinks and doesn't just push buttons. No way does Acta bluff by putting Zim in the on-deck circle. And Mark you didn't mention Riggleman's decision to put in Burnett to start the 9th to face the lefty leading off, since the Brewers only had lefthanded batters on the bench. NO WAY does Acta do that; Burnett isn't the 9th inning guy, after all. It's refreshing to have a real manager here. And it does make a difference.

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