NEW YORK | For all the attributes scouts and sabermetricians have quantified, confidence remains one of the few uncharted frontiers in the evaluation of a baseball player.
It’s rolled into scouts’ loosely-defined “makeup” category, but for the most part, there’s little way to measure what makes some players fail while players of equal or lesser talent succeed. And whether they should or not, the 2010 Nationals have more of it than any of their recent predecessors.
The way they played the ninth inning of their 4-3 win over the New York Mets on Saturday was a testament to it. The Nationals started the inning with their best player watching in the clubhouse, nursing a sore hamstring and feeling “helpless,” and their other two offensive mainstays out of the game, unavailable to help in case of extra innings.
Two more of the Nationals’ core players were away from their native positions, and on the mound was a closer trying to earn his second save with a new team after his go-for-broke mentality got him cut loose following a disastrous 2009 season.
And yet, as left fielder Willie Harris made an immediate to decision to charge and dive for pinch hitter Rod Barajas’ sinking liner with the bases loaded and two out, knowing an unsuccessful attempt would probably mean a loss, the point was clear: Whatever their limitations, these Nationals will play with a confidence they have not earned but could eventually own.
Harris, of course, made the diving catch, stretching out his glove and backhanding the ball before he hit the ground and slid to a stop. He bumped hips in midair with center fielder Nyjer Morgan, whose first thought when he saw Harris charge Barajas’ liner was simply, “Caught.
“You’ve got to be confident out here, period,” Morgan said. “You’ve got to be ready to go. He was well-prepared. His opportunity came, and he handled it just perfect. We believe. That’s the key. Everybody believes, and as long as we all believe in each other, we’re going to be just fine.”
It’s perhaps the surest sign yet of a team molded by current general manager Mike Rizzo, not former GM Jim Bowden. Instead of the physical specimens Bowden preferred, this team is made up of players with the intestinal fortitude Rizzo prizes in ballplayers and developed in himself as a semi-anonymous scout who woke each day with the mantra, “I’m going to beat somebody today.”
The Nationals embodied that mentality on Saturday, getting all four of their runs batted in by Willy Taveras, whose career high in a game was half that many and who didn’t have four times that total in 102 games last season. Tyler Clippard, the converted starter with the goofy goggles, struck out seven batters in three innings, his 40 pitches the most he’s ever thrown as a reliever.
Washington’s 3-4-5 hitters went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts, and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman left the game in the sixth inning with a tight left hamstring that had been bothering him for several days. It didn’t matter.
The Nationals’ bullpen, which gave up six runs on Friday in a loss to the Mets, didn’t allow one on Saturday. Clippard did it mostly by himself, throwing four different pitches for strikes and tying his own team record for strikeouts by a reliever.
“I was able to kind of throw their timing off and sneak a few fastballs by guys,” Clippard said. “That’s what I need to do to be successful. I had everything working tonight, so it was pretty tough on them.”
Capps, on the other hand, needed some help.
He gave up a single through the middle to Jose Reyes - playing his first game of the season - to start the inning. The Mets moved Reyes into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt, and though Capps struck out Jason Bay, he bookended the out with walks to David Wright and Jeff Francoeur.
The Mets brought Barajas, who homered twice on Friday night, in to pinch-hit for the pitcher’s spot. Bench coach John McLaren moved the outfielders a few steps toward the left-field line, figuring Capps would start Barajas with a first-pitch fastball and the catcher might be trying to jump on it.
“We had an idea that Barajas was going to try and ambush Capps right off the hop, knowing that he’d try to get ahead with the bases juiced,” Morgan said. “During batting practice, we practice getting those reads off the bats, because that’s basically the only time we can practice fly balls.”
The at-bat played out exactly to plan. Capps threw a 93-mph fastball, low in the strike zone, and Barajas put the barrel of the bat on it, smoking it to left and making the Citi Field crowd of 33,044 believe the Mets had, at worst, tied the game. But Harris, who saved two games against the Mets with highlight-worthy catches in 2008, was positioned right in the ball’s flight path. He immediately decided he would take a chance and try to catch the ball, instead of conceding one run but eliminating the chance for two.
“Right away, once he hit it, my mind was made up to try to make the play,” Harris said. “I was going after it, regardless. I wasn’t going to take a chance of letting it bounce in front of me and having a chance to throw Dave Wright out at the plate. I don’t roll like that. I go after the ball first, and if I realize I can’t catch, I go to Plan B.”
What Plan B was, or would have been, was unclear and unnecessary. The Nationals managed the ninth inning with a little planning and a good deal of self-assurance, probably more than a 59-win team should have.
But they’re of the mindset that showing confidence is the only way to get to a point where the pedigree matches it.
“Winning this early is new to me,” said starter John Lannan, who got his first victory of the year after going winless in April last season. “It’s great to win early. We have a shot in every ballgame, pretty much. We’re not playing our best baseball, either. We’re going out there and we’re battling. When we start playing good baseball, the wins are going to start coming a lot more.”