The anatomy of the Nationals’ squeeze play

We won’t spend too much time obsessing over the suicide squeeze play the Nationals ran to get their fifth run on Saturday afternoon, since it merely provided an insurance run the team wound up not needing anyway. But there were some interesting inside-baseball nuggets to come out of the play:

First, the situation: The Nationals got a runner in scoring position right away in the seventh inning after Ryan Zimmerman tripled to center on a ball Nate McLouth couldn’t stop with a diving attempt. The Braves then pulled right-hander Scott Linebrink for lefty George Sherrill. Two of the next three hitters were lefties, and switch-hitter Danny Espinosa put up much better power numbers (albeit in a limited sample) against righties than lefties last year.

Sherrill did his job on LaRoche, getting him to ground out to second. Then, the Braves walked pinch hitter Jerry Hairston Jr., putting runners on first and third with one out.

Rick Ankiel was on deck while Hairston was getting walked, and he came over to the dugout during the walk to compare notes with LaRoche. “He was just giving him a heads-up about what his ball was doing, stuff like that,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “That’s a great thing - LaRoche and (Jayson) Werth, Zim, all these guys really share a lot of information in the dugout. Never mind that you made an out with your at-bat. Instead of just taking it into the dugout, they share some information. It’s good, because it’s going to help at-bats.”

Ankiel came to the plate, knowing a squeeze would be a possibility with a left-hander on the mound. Riggleman had told him about the possibility before the at-bat, but didn’t put the squeeze sign on until he’d taken two pitches, one for a ball and one for a strike.

On the third pitch, Sherrill threw Ankiel a slider, which the center fielder laid down perfectly. It can be tougher to read than a fastball, but because the ball is breaking down already, it’s sometimes easier to put on the ground for a bunt.

From third, Zimmerman knew the sign for a squeeze might come in, with Ankiel (a career .231 hitter against lefties) at the plate and third baseman Chipper Jones not likely to charge a bunt with a runner at third. He waited for Sherrill to deliver, and broke for home as the pitch came toward the plate.

Debbi Taylor asks Rick Ankiel about his two-run homer and suicide squeeze in the Nats 6-3 win

“You don’t have to get a jump or anything,” Zimmerman said. “If you’re running, and they get the bunt down, there’s no way they can get you out.”

The play worked, and it embodied one of the things the Nationals will have to do this year to be successful.

“Jim told us at the beginning of the year that we’re not going to wait around for things to happen. We’re going to go and try to score runs,” Zimmerman said. “At a time like that, when you’re ahead two, the third run is a big deal. It’s a tough lefty for any lefty to hit, It’s a lot easier just to bunt and put it in play. If you can pick up a cheap run right there, it’s a big play.”

Said Ankiel: “I feel like I’ve got a feel for the style of baseball that we’re trying to play. I think the biggest thing is trying to conceal it, not let the other team know that you’re going to do it, and hey, here we are: W.”