Thursday, July 1, 2010

Anatomy of a winning rally

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Smiles were aplenty following this 2-1, walk-off win.
It takes a lot for the Nationals to manufacture a run these days. They certainly haven't been coming easily for a club that has averaged 2.95 runs over its last 19 games and has been held to two runs or less nine times during that stretch.

So when the Nats twice managed to push a man across the plate in the final three innings of tonight's nip-and-tuck, 2-1 victory over the Mets, it was cause for legitimate celebration on South Capitol Street.

This win would not have been possible without a fantastic pitching performance from Livan Hernandez (seven innings of one-run ball), not to mention effective relief from Drew Storen and Matt Capps. And Nyjer Morgan's two-out, RBI single off Johan Santana in the seventh constituted as clutch a hit as any Nationals batter has collected all season.

But we're going to focus here on the ninth-inning rally that ultimately sealed this victory, because it featured four consecutive quality plate appearances, all of which were necessary to push the winning run across. Let's break it down...

Admit it: How many of you were groaning when you saw Harris step to the plate with one out and nobody on to face left-hander Pedro Feliciano? Harris, owner of a .155 batting average. Harris, owner of one hit in his last 24 at-bats. Harris, who had only 14 previous plate appearances against lefties this year.

Well, the guy who has made a career out of beating the Mets came through once again with a plate appearance Jim Riggleman called "tremendous."

Feliciano immediately fell behind in the count with two misplaced fastballs, but he bounced back to even the count. His 2-2 pitch, a slider, was low and outside, so Harris took it to run the count full. Somehow, Willie managed to lay off a tough 3-2 fastball that just barely came in below the strike zone, and thus trotted down to first base representing the winning run.

"I knew I was facing a tough pitcher," he said. "I know Feliciano is tough on all lefties. But we had nobody else on the bench. I just went up there and had my mind focused on trying to hit a ball up the middle. Fortunately, I was able to draw that walk and our guy got the sacrifice fly to drive me in."

The importance of Harris' walk wasn't lost on his manager.

"Regardless of what his numbers say across the board, he grinds out an at-bat for you," Riggleman said. "That was huge."

How many times have we seen Morgan try to get a bunt down this season and fail miserably in the process? This time, though, Nyjer dropped a perfect drag bunt, pushing it past Feliciano and forcing first baseman Ike Davis to make an impossible play.

Morgan, hitting a scant .228 against lefties this season, had already produced that clutch RBI single off Santana two innings earlier. This time, he realized his best chance was to try to catch Feliciano and the Mets napping.

"I didn't want to see all that nasty stuff Feliciano has," Morgan said. "I just figured as soon as he comes over with that first pitch, just get it down and try to make it happen. At least get Willie Harris over to second base so we can make it happen from there."

Nyjer couldn't have executed the bunt any better, leaving runners on first and second with one out for ...

Guzman is hardly known as the world's most-patient hitter, but he displayed some will power in taking two straight balls from Feliciano to open the at-bat. That put the pressure on the New York reliever to throw a strike, and Guzman pounced on the 2-0 fastball and lofted a sinking liner to left.

Though it looked like a clean hit all the way, from his vantage point at second base, Harris wasn't 100 percent confident left fielder Jesus Feliciano (no relation to the pitcher) wasn't going to make a diving catch. So Harris held up ever so briefly before taking off for third. He still might have attempted to come all the way around to score right there, but Pat Listach had the stop sign up and Harris knew it would have been the wrong move to go for it anyway.

"I don't want a take a chance and get thrown out at the plate when we've got our RBI guy [Zimmerman] coming up," Harris said. "I knew what I was doing the whole time. I'd rather lose with Zim at the plate than lose getting thrown out at the plate."

So now the bases were loaded with one out for ...

Before Zimmerman could dig in at the plate, Mets manager Jerry Manuel had to do a little re-arranging of things. Make that A LOT of re-arranging. First off, he replaced Feliciano with right-hander Ryota Igarashi, trying to set up a better match-up with Zimmerman. Then he pulled the other Feliciano in from left field and stationed him right in front of second base, creating a five-man infield. The remaining two outfielder shaded to the left a bit, but basically Manuel allowed left field to remain wide open.

Had Manuel ever tried anything like that before?

"Yes, I have," he said. "And it worked. The last time it worked was when I was with the White Sox in Kansas City. That's a long time ago."

And what was Zimmerman's reaction when he saw five defensive players standing within 100 feet of him?

"A lot of people in the infield. Try to hit it in the air, I guess," he said. "I've never been up when it's happened, but I've seen it before. There's no room on the ground."

With the Mets conceding anything hit to left field, it would have been tempting for Zimmerman to just try to pull the ball and stroke a guaranteed, game-winning hit.

But that's not the way Zimmerman usually tries to approach an at-bat, and he wasn't about to try something new now, with the game on the line.

"You don't want to get away from what you do," he said. "If you try to pull the ball too much, then you hit into a double play. You've just got to take what they give you. ... But I was just trying to drive the ball to right-center like I always do."

Zimmerman pulled that off in textbook fashion. He lofted a fly ball to center, just deep enough to force Jeff Francoeur to have to make a perfect throw to the plate to have a chance at nailing the tagging Harris. Francoeur couldn't do it, so Harris came racing in with the winning run and was greeted with a bear hug from Adam Kennedy.

Over at first base, Zimmerman was mobbed by his teammates, who hadn't had a chance to celebrate a walk-off win in quite some time.

"It's nice to win a 1-run game," Zimmerman said.

It's even nicer when it comes about thanks to perfect execution by four different batters in succession. Four outstanding at-bats in a row to produce a much-needed victory.


Sam said...

The walk was huge. It set the tone for the rest of the inning. Excellent at-bat by Willie to get the rally started.

Sec$39.99 said...

I don't disagree, but how come when Nats pitchers walk a guy, it's not a great at-bat by the opposing player, it's just [bad] pitching?

Doc said...

Outstanding end-game analysis, Mark! Just really a great piece of writing. Thanks!

Brandon said...

Hey Mark,

Given what happened with the D-Backs, will you provide any insight of Rizzo's relationship with Josh Byrnes? Josh's wiki says he grew up in DC.

K.D. said...

Thanks Mark, haven't had a chance to watch the replay on MLB. Great recap.

Joe Seamhead said...

Today is Morgan's 30th birthday. I thought he was younger then that.

Anonymous said...

Very nicely done - again- Mark. Thank you. In my mind the story of the game is three words: Livan Livan Livan.

natsfan1a said...

Carrying forward:

Maybe we could bash Debbi Taylor for saying that Kenny G is one of the best saxophone players of all time? (Sorry, Kenny G fans, but...dang)


Who to bash? It's quite a nit but a line drive single instead of a sac fly makes a better highlight.

Richard said...

Yes, great article.

Re who to bash, I hope Guzman's hitting, which he's doing again this year, and his defense at 2nd base, especially the last couple of nights, will quiet the Guzman-bashers for a day or two. He even drew some walks and got a HBP the other night. ...

On another subject, I, like Adam Dunn, hate the talk this time of year of the Nats dumping the few hitters they have for pitching prospects. Good lord, they struggle to score now. IMHO, removing the oft injured Nic Johnson from the #2 position in the batting order this time last year was a blow to the offense, which, if memory serves, was a strong suit last year up to that point. It was the pitching that was the main problem. I wish the Nats would at least put an end to the trade-Adam-Dunn talk with a contract extension; of course, Adam and his agent have something to say about that, too.

Souldrummer said...

I can understand the fatigue on Adam Dunn trade talk. Trading Nick Johnson was responsible and necessary, though. He got injured with Florida and he has barely played for the Yankees as a free agent. Getting an okay prospect for him was necessary and responsible given where we were as a team. Plus, the reason that Dunn has value and is worthy of resigning is that moving Nick Johnson cleared a spot for Dunn to move to the infield where his defense doesn't hurt us as much.

It's the lack of production from 2B and CF that are our problems for the most part. That and waiting out Desmond's necessary growing pains.

Steve M. said...

Richard - I have been squawking about a Adam Dunn extension for 2 months now. Sure, April he was slumping and now he is proving to be Top 5 and his 1st base defense has been decent. He makes everyone around him in the order better. For his detractors, yes he hasn't been clutch with RISP.

Still needs to be a part of the future here!

Steve M. said...

On Guzman, he has shown 2 days in a row that his defense at 2nd gives him much better range than Kennedy.

Guzman is also better in the 2nd hole than Bernadina since he is a switch hitter.

natscan reduxit said...

... great win, fabulous and fantastic. I whooped out loud and my kids thought I was nuts. Way to:

Go Nats!!

... and now for something completely different. Ever wonder who controls MLB? Ever wonder why players never have anything to say that doesn’t involve baseball? (And that goes for most every other pro sport as well, so it’s not a baseball only issue.) Maybe y’all should read this:

Souldrummer said...

The other part of this rally that needs to be explained is that it was inexplicable that the Mets would leave Feliciano in to pitch to Guzman. Feliciano's job is to get out lefties. He's supposed to be able to retire Harris and Morgan. Not retiring Harris was his fault. Morgan was kind of bad luck for him on the drag bunt. But Jerry did not flip Guzman around for reasons unfathomable to me a Nats fan, and certainly most Mets fans. He brings in a righty to flip Guzman to his weaker side one batter earlier and this might be a different story.

I'm not always a fan of Riggles' game management (see Alberto Gonzalez pinch hitting against Santana and basically wasting a position player with Bernadina coming in solely for defense), but his minor questionable moves often pale in comparison to Jerry's flagrant headscratching ones.


Come on, we all held our breath with Willie Harris up. If Willie struck out on the 3-2 pitch (which was so close to a strike), we all know we would be yelling and screaming.

The good news is that this maybe gives Willie some confidence. A .155 batting average is abominable for a bench player.

It will be interesting the direction Willie goes to next. Is "2008 Willie" out there?

Big Cat said...

ok Atilano....lets keep it going. Twirl a shutout and we'll go extra innings.....lets go

natsfan1a said...

Geez, again with the politics and baseball. We all have in common our love of the Nats. No doubt there are differing views among us on religion, politics, and other hot-button issues. Frankly, I have no desire to know the views of baseball forum participants on those issues, nor do I wish to air my own views here. I trust that forum denizens have sufficient initiative and savvy to know where they might read editorials and discussions on such issues without any pointers from me, should they wish to do so.

natscan reduxit said...

... you’re right about the politics, natsfan. I should have listened to my own mind when it told me not to hit ‘send’. But I thought since it was directly involved with the game, the players and the way the league operates, maybe it would pass muster.

... somewhere there is a place for these conversations. I’ll keep looking.

NatinBeantown said...


Congrats on your 500th post! Can you get to 1000 by the end of the season, or are we in for a swoon in the dog days of August? :)

Wombat-socho said...

Natscan, you might try FJB. He had a post not too long ago about the Arizona immigration brouhaha that put me off the site for about a month.

Post linked at Beltway Baseball.

natsfan1a said...

Thanks, natscan. Apologies if I was intemperate in my reply.

Mark Zuckerman said...

NatinBeantown: Thanks! I honestly had no idea I'd reached 500 posts. I certainly intend to keep up at this same pace the rest of the season. Not sure if that will get me to 1,000 by October, but you never know.

I do know that I am closing in on another, more-impressive milestone, one that is directly attributable to all of you who have been coming to this site over the last five months. I'll make note of it in a couple weeks when it happens!

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