Let’s not be too polite about it. The team every expert on earth picked in spring to win the National League East, with no few of them picking them to go all the way to a World Series ring, is doing its level best to make chumps out of every one of those experts. That’s because manager Matt Williams seems to be doing his level best to make sure they don’t even get to the wild card play-in game.
What other impression could you draw watching a man spend much of this season and the past month in particular prove that he learned nothing from managing himself and his Nats right out of last year’s postseason?
When the Nats smothered the Braves 15-1 Thursday night, it was as though a switch got flipped that was marked, “The only way to survive your manager is to out-hit his brain freezes.”
Or, in the case of Bryce Harper, out-walk them. He drew four walks and scored four runs in the rout and never took the bat off his shoulder. Only one other player has had two career four-walk, four-run, one-RBI (what else?—a bases loaded walk) game before his 23rd birthday, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. And to think the night before Harper’s glutes tightened up enough to scare an already edgy Nats Nation.
Harper didn’t beat the Braves all by his lonesome, of course. Ryan Zimmerman helped himself to three hits and four steaks, and Jordan Zimmermann pitched six smart innings of one-run, two-hit ball. OK, so they only gained a sliver on the Mets, who had Thursday off, but after dropping two of three to the Cardinals to start the week—thanks to Williams and his amazing stick-by-the-book stubbornness, every little bit helps.
The question becomes for how long, and for how much worth. Last we saw, the fat lady was loosening up her vocal cords in the Nationals Park arterials, just in case a dirge would be needed. For the Nats’ season and, possibly, for Williams’s job.
Williams still hasn’t got a clue about the right and wrong time to stay with The Book. Whether it’s hooking Zimmermann last October when the kid was one out from a complete game division series-tying shutout, or whether it’s forgetting that there come times when you can’t wait until you have a game-to-end lead that isn’t a lead yet to bring in your late hammer.
The Nats were sent to the Mattress yet again on back to back nights this week. The lesson for those games is, “Ignore what the boss didn’t do against the Mets to start August and this tailspin, and concentrate on what he didn’t do against the Cardinals to take advantage of a rare enough chance to gain a little on the Mets.”
He might not have gained Monday night with the Mets beating the Phillies in New York, but he could have gained a precious game on Tuesday, while the Phillies (at last!) exacted a little double-digit revenge for the terrorism the Mets wreaked against them in Philadelphia last week. (Short-lived revenge, alas; the Mets ended up taking two of three from the phallen Philadelphians.)
Tuesday night, Williams absolutely, resolutely refused to even think about Papelbon in a tied ninth. Never mind that Drew Storen—the incumbent the Papelbon non-waiver deadline deal unseated—had another off night and surrendered the tying runs, though he was victimised most by a failed bid to bag a force at third, leaving himself the bases loaded.
No, this just wasn’t Papelbon’s job, Williams insisted. He’s the closer. He closes. That’s his job. Period dot period. We didn’t get Jonathan Papelbon for holds. No, but wouldn’t you think about having Papelbon for a possible win instead? Nope. Williams handed it off to Casey Janssen. And Janssen promptly got two outs.
Then, on pitch number 13, he handed off a two-out double after having his man down two strikes. Six pitches later, a two-out walk. Two pitches after that, a three-run walkoff homer. Brandon Moss, the Cardinal who swatted the gamer, would like to thank Williams for helping to make him a hero on the team with the best record in baseball.
“Let’s say, for instance, Pap throws a clean ninth and we score in the tenth,” Williams told a radio show the morning after. “Who’s closing the game for us? I guess it would be somebody, right?”
Uh, yeah, Matt, it would. Hell, it might be Papelbon himself, if your boys bust the tie in the tenth. You’re not going to hand it off to your last man standing, long man Sammy Solis, unless you score more than two or three runs. Actually, yes he might. Knowing Williams, he’d have done just that.
Monday was just as bad. Williams didn’t even think about Storen after Gio Gonzalez came out in the seventh after a fine start and a 5-3 lead, never mind that Storen can work two innings if necessary. He handed it to Janssen. And Janssen burped up the tying runs. Exit Janssen, enter Felipe Rivero, the younger guy. And Jason Heyward ripped a two-run double before Kolten Wong followed an intentional walk with an RBI single.
Did I mention the Nats lost both those games to the Cardinals by 8-5 scores? Did I mention that Williams is probably overusing Janssen and Aaron Barrett while not using Storen or Matt Thornton often enough? Did I also mention that the Nats have had their injury issues this year but so have the Cardinals, especially to Adam Wainwright, their best pitcher—yet the Cardinals have baseball’s best record as of this writing?
The Wednesday salvage almost didn’t happen, either. Not with Williams running through four relievers while the Cardinals tied things at three. He owes Zimmerman big enough for ripping the RBI double in the seventh to break the tie. It let Williams manage his preferred way. By The Book. Storen in the eighth. Papelbon in the ninth. Masterful, to use Nats GM Mike Rizzo’s words about Williams’s Tuesday management.
Williams should have asked for help from his predecessor. Once upon a time, long before he managed the Nats to their first division title, Davey Johnson had two closers, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco. He’d use them both, often in the same games, and often as creatively as creativity got.* That was one reason Johnson’s 1986 Mets ran away with the National League East and survived hair-raisers in a League Championship Series and a World Series.
The fact that back-to-back wins gave the Nats a mere inch of a pickup on the high-enough-flying Mets is small consolation. Had Williams tossed The Book they might have picked up more ground. And with six games against the Mets to come, including a regular season-ending set, the Mets may not be the only ones throwing the book at Williams—and maybe even his enabling GM—when it’s over.
On 22 July 1986, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco were the stars in one of baseball’s strangest games. When Davey Johnson found himself in need of options with his bench depleted against the Cincinnati Reds, and with Orosco on the mound already, the manager moved Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter to third base with Ed Hearn taking over behind the plate, sent McDowell out to play right field (Darryl Strawberry had been ejected earlier for arguing a strike call), and began switching Orosco and McDowell back and forth between the mound and right field.
The game went to extra innings. Orosco actually had a sharp fielding chance in the thirteenth, snagging Hall of Famer Tony Perez’s liner, a mischievious little smile on his face after he snapped his glove around the ball. Howard Johnson’s three-run homer in the top of the fourteenth gave the Mets the cushion for McDowell to close it out in the bottom for the win. But as Metsmerized Online says, the 1986 Mets were good enough that they could beat you with one outfielder tied behind their backs.
But we’ll bet you that if you suggest to Matt Williams that he try something similar with Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon, in similar circumstances or in just about any circumstances, Williams would probably have you measured for a straitjacket. In-game creativity isn’t exactly Williams’s style.