SAN DIEGO - The Nationals’ 5-3 win over the Padres was one of the more bizarre games the team is likely to play this year. It began with a protest in the bottom of the first inning, when Padres manager Bud Black realized he’d submitted the wrong lineup, putting Adam Russell - who had been sent to Triple-A Portland - in the pitcher’s spot instead of Clayton Richard, even though the Nationals knew Richard was supposed to pitch.
The Nationals protested the game out of protocol, even though they knew the protest would not have held up under MLB Rule 4.01, which states a team cannot be trapped for a routine mistake. Afterward, manager Jim Riggleman said he was glad the Nationals won, in part to avoid the protest process.
“It’s my nightmare. It’s Casey Stengel’s nightmare. And it’s the future managers of the world’s nightmare, that you get that wrong name on there,” Riggleman said. “I look at it 10 times. I have the coaches look at it over and over, and every now and then, one gets by.”
Since Russell was “not even in the area code,” umpire Tim Tschida said, there was little the Nationals could do. If he had been on the 25-man roster, he would have come in to face one batter, Richard would have been finished and the Padres would have had to play the rest of the game with the rest of their pitching staff. But effectively, Richard replaced Russell.
“There isn’t much more penalty that we can enforce on them,” Tschida said. “We can’t create somebody to come in and face one guy that Russell should have faced, and the Nationals protested that, which is certainly within their rights, and what they should do.”
It was, overall, an odd night, with Matt Capps earning his 17th save despite giving up four hits in the ninth. So, befitting the screwball developments at Petco Park, we’re going to monkey with the format of the game story. Here are the four key plays of the game, in terms of win probability added (WPA), and the details of what happened (and yes, I realize this is riffing a little bit on what Federal Baseball does. But I like the idea, so for one night, I’m going to borrow a piece of it and add some of my own thoughts):
Josh Willingham’s three-run homer (33.4% WPA): In his time with the Nationals, Willingham’s current hot streak is only rivaled by the tear he was on last July, when he hit two grand slams in a game in Milwaukee. He is hitting .474 with four homers and 11 RBI in his last six games, and squared up Richard’s middle-away fastball, sending it to center for a three-run homer. “I’m not doing anything different,” Willingham said. “I’m just trying to take a pretty simple approach, to be honest with you. That approach is to go up there and relax, and try to get a good pitch to hit.”
Ian Desmond’s solo homer (8.0% WPA): Desmond hit a 1-1 changeup from Richard to center field in the seventh inning, putting the Nationals up 4-1. His ball went to roughly the same spot in the park that Willingham’s did, and in one of the game’s definitive pitcher’s parks, Desmond found the right spot. “Where we hit them is the spot to hit them,” Riggleman said. “(Adam) Dunn hit his ball (to right) very well, but the park ate it up. I thought that ball was gone. I think right there, where both our home runs went, that direction is where you’re going to get them.”
Chris Denorfia’s single off Matt Capps (18.0% WPA): With the Padres loading the bases in the ninth and threatening to become just the second team to steal a save from Capps, Denorfia ripped a 95-mph fastball from Capps to center, driving in Yorvit Torrealba and keeping the bases loaded. The hit allowed the Padres to cash in on a couple of infield hits, one which came when Ian Desmond belatedly tried to turn a double play. Capps threw Denorfia a 2-1 fastball high in the zone, and Denorfia pulled the Padres within two.
Capps’ strikeout of Matt Stirs (-17.0 WPA): The Padres had the bases loaded when they brought up Stairs, one of the most feared pinch hitters in the game. Capps got Stairs to foul off two pitches, and then missed the zone with three, two of them fastballs that were high and outside. But with the count full and Stairs likely expecting a fastball, catcher Wil Nieves called for a slider. If the gamble worked, and Stairs was sitting on a fastball, the slider wouldn’t have to be perfect; it just needed to be over the plate. It was, and the Nationals got the first out of the inning - the turning point to stopping the Padres’ rally. “It wasn’t a great slider, by any means,” Capps said. “But I think he’s got to be looking fastball there.”