If he had his druthers, there’s little mystery to how Davey Johnson would prefer to win games. He favors the three-run home run over small ball, likes to see his team club an opponent into submission instead of nitpicking them for a run here and a run there. Get the lead and then defend: It’s a mantra that Johnson has repeated frequently during his first week as the Nats’ new field boss.
So what was the veteran skipper doing Saturday night in the nightcap of a doubleheader, cautiously pushing the envelope with a series of unconventional, very un-Johnson-like moves and playing for a run at a time? Simply put, Johnson had grown tired of waiting for the Washington offense to take off. Missed chances, the inability to cash in runners in scoring position, star players who are eliciting boos from impatient fans because they can’t deliver in the clutch - all these things pushed Johnson to, well, start pushing buttons.
The machinations worked, from a daring double steal that scored the tying run in the eighth inning to the bold move of pinch hitting catcher Ivan Rodriguez when the move left Johnson without a backup receiver had the game progressed into extra innings. The way Johnson explained his strategy, however, sounded a lot more like moves made in semi-desperation than calculated alternatives that paid expected dividends.
“He knows what he’s doing. ... Everybody needs to be ready for every situation,” said Rodriguez, who delivered the game-winning single with two down in the eighth for a 4-3 victory and a split of the doubleheader.
The Nationals made the most of meager offense, They scored four runs on five hits, and parlayed a hit batter, two walks, a pair of Pirates errors and Rodriguez’s single to erase a 3-2 deficit. Drew Storen retired the side in the ninth for his 20th save, preserving the first career victory of Ryan Mattheus (1-0).
“Four runs? Five hits?” Johnson said, almost amazed by the results. “The only one we hit out of the infield was Pudge’s. All the others were ground balls in the infield. ... That’s not really my three-run, home run-style of play. But we certainly are capable, so I’ve just got to be patient and optimistic.”
Michael Morse started off the uprising by getting plunked on the left forearm by a pitch from Chris Resop. With Jayson Werth batting, Brian Bixler pinch ran for Morse, but Werth flied out to right. Lefty Tony Watson (0-1) came in to face left-handed hitting Rick Ankiel, who foiled the move by drawing a walk. With Wilson Ramos hitting, Bixler broke for third on a 3-1 pitch on a double steal, and third baseman Brandon Wood couldn’t hold a throw from catcher Eric Fryer that beat Bixler. The ball bounded away and Bixler scampered home with the tying run.
“I didn’t really want to pinch run (Bixler),” Johnson explained, saying he was hoping to save the right-handed hitter because of the left-handed relievers in the Pittsburgh bullpen. “Usually, if I’m going to do it, I do it. I knew they had left-handers and I didn’t have any more right-handers once I used Pudge. So I said, ‘The heck with it.’ ... I thought he had a chance to steal, though he didn’t get a really good jump.”
Ramos walked, Ian Desmond struck out swinging and Johnson sent Rodriguez up to pinch hit for Mattheus, only his 93rd pinch-hitting appearance in 21 campaigns, and his second this season. Watson quickly got ahead 0-2, and Rodriguez fouled off a pair of pitches before shooting a 93 mph fastball into right-field for a 4-3 Washington lead with his 17th career pinch-hit RBI.
“I haven’t had too many pinch hits, you know,” said Rodriguez, who said he only took five practice hacks to get ready for the at-bat. “But that’s the game. I’ve been playing this game for such a long time that I’m getting used to this role that I have. I’m OK with it. ... Whoever gets the opportunity to go out there and win for the team is all that matters. Today it was my opportunity and I got it done for the team.”
Johnson was just happy that his button-pushing got the desired results, especially since the Nats had been 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position before Rodriguez’s game-winner.
“It’s a little early in my tenure to be pushing it as far as I’m pushing it, but ... I’m going to roll the dice,” Johnson said.
The comeback blunted some loud criticism from the crowd of 39,638 directed at Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, the $126 million offseason acquisition and the former All-Star third baseman whose batting average has dipped to .219. Werth drew a chorus of boos when he struck out swinging to lead off the fourth in the nightcap and the catcalls grew more emphatic after a leadoff strikeout in the sixth and his fly ball in the eighth. Zimmerman was frozen by Daniel McCutchen’s 86 mph slider on the outside corner for an inning-ending called third strike in the seventh, and he was booed for stranding two runners.
Werth declined to talk to reporters after the game, but Johnson said he understands what his struggling run producers are going through.
“(Werth is) a great ballplayer and he’s going to get going,” the manager said. “I mean, he takes it as hard as anybody around here. He works hard, he’s a gamer. He’s going to be fine (but) I’m not worried about him. I hate to see them booing, but that’s part of the game. When you’re going good they cheer you, when you’re not going so good, they boo you.”
Werth’s batting average has slipped to .224 and he’s amassed a team-high 79 strikeouts. After he fanned for the second time in the nightcap, he sarcastically doffed his batting helmet to the unhappy fans behind the home dugout. ZImmerman is 13-for-77 since returning June 14 from abdominal surgery
Johnson knows the Nationals’ fortunes look much rosier when Werth and Zimmerman are contributing, and that it’s nothing short of miraculous that Washington is 42-42 despite their struggles.
“We’ve had more downs than ups, but we’ve been hanging in there, ...I think guys are ready to bust out, and I hope it’s soon,” Johnson said.