Jim Riggleman could tick off the names on the lineup card and see what was coming, like mile markers leading up to an accident down the freeway. The Nationals manager had a remade bullpen, protecting its first lead of the year, that was going to be put through as tough a test as it will see all season.
The Nationals’ first homestand last season ended with three blown ninth-inning leads against the Florida Marlins and an ensuing bullpen shakeup that never really stopped until general manager Mike Rizzo got Brian Bruney in a trade with the Yankees and signed Matt Capps as a free agent last December. Those two were held up as the answer to the Nationals’ ramshackle bullpen of 2009, and here they were, at the end of the first homestand in 2010, with an opportunity to prove something was different.
And what a crucible it was: a one-run lead to protect over six outs, the two-time National League champions to face, the most dangerous succession of hitters in the league as the final obstacle.
There was no getting around it: the Nationals were going to see, right away, how their new bullpen could hold up. What they got was a surprising - and uplifting - outcome.
Bruney and Capps each gave up a double and walked a batter, but neither broke. The Nationals held on for a 6-5 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, and left for a six-game road trip feeling a lot better about the start of their season.
“You’ve got to come ready to play. You can’t make too many mistakes against them, because they’re really good,” Riggleman said. “I think it’s encouraging for us to realize that they’re real good, but when we play good, we’re right there.”
The Nationals had an early 5-2 lead with starter Craig Stammen in the game, but the right-hander wasn’t strong enough to hold that margin. He chugged through three innings, getting eight groundouts despite allowing two runs, but broke down in the fifth, allowing a single to pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs and another hit to Placido Polanco that was exacerbated when Nyjer Morgan made a two-base error diving for the ball in center.
Stammen gave up hits to two of the next three batters, only getting out of the inning on a break. Jayson Werth doubled for the third time in as many at-bats, but third-base coach Sam Perlozzo mistakenly waved Ryan Howard around third, throwing up a stop sign too late to keep Howard on the base. Perlozzo slammed his cap to the ground as Ryan Zimmerman and Wil Nieves caught Howard in a rundown to end the inning with the Nationals up one.
The Phillies, though, aren’t the kind of team to let too many one-run leads stand, and they tied the game off Sean Burnett in the sixth.
But Zimmerman blooped a double just inside the right-field line in the seventh, putting the Nationals up one again and forcing Bruney and Capps into a showdown.
There was a common theme with both pitchers, and a common antidote they provided to the Nationals’ bullpen. Both have power arms and are unafraid to attack hitters. They’re the kinds of pitchers that put a boxer’s edge in Rizzo’s voice when he’s talking about them.
The Nationals had too few of those last season. Joel Hanrahan lost his closer’s job last April after a game in Philadelphia when he walked Howard and Werth - it was because, he admitted later, he was afraid of giving up homers to both of them - and then allowed a decisive grand slam to Raul Ibanez.
Their new pitchers weren’t going to be beat that way. Bruney got a Polanco groundout when he put runners on second and third with two out. Then it was on to Capps, who the Pirates non-tendered after last season only because his M.O. of challenging hitters, combined with a few struggles and some bad luck, led to a 5.80 ERA in 2009.
“If we were to get into a fight, I’m going to go down swinging,” Capps said. “If I’m going to get beat on the ballfield, it’s going to be with the best I’ve got. If it’s not good enough, it’s a lot easier to look yourself in the mirror the next day.”
Capps allowed a leadoff double to Chase Utley, and intentionally walked Howard. But then Morgan tracked down a searing Werth liner that looked like his fourth double-to-be, and Willie Harris, who homered in the fourth inning, caught a shallow fly in left and made a strong throw home to keep Utley at third.
Center fielder Shane Victorino came to the plate, with the option of walking him to get to weak-hitting catcher Brian Schneider. Riggleman wasn’t biting.
“(Capps) knew who he was facing there. He was firing,” Riggleman said. “That’s the best he’s thrown. He reached back and got a little extra for that inning.”
Capps jammed Victorino with an 0-1 fastball, getting him to pop up to Cristian Guzman at short. The Nationals had their first win of 2010 - and more importantly, their new bullpen had passed its first test.
“It’s big for us,” said Harris, wearing a silver pompadour donated from Morgan’s old Halloween costume (Superman and an Elvis wig) and now serving as a rotating award for the player of the game. “Hopefully we can take this momentum with Capps coming in and finishing off, Bruney coming in and doing what he did, take some momentum to New York, see these guys again (next week in Philadelphia) and take two out of three from them at their place.”