Nationals rely on rare squeeze play to get past Cubs

Why in the world would the Nationals be expected to run a suicide squeeze play in the seventh inning of a tie game, with one of their slowest runners at third base, a batter who’d had one sacrifice bunt in his career and a manager who’d rather pluck his eyebrows with a pair of needle-nose pliers than bunt?

With the way their offense has been going, why not?

“You haven’t been here the last eight days that I’ve been here?” manager Davey Johnson said, when asked why he called for a squeeze in the seventh inning. “You’ve got to open up the Cracker Jack box.”

Davey Johnson talks with the media following the Nats’ 5-4 victory over the Cubs

It’s come to this with the Nationals’ offense, that on a night where they hit a pair of home runs and got three extra-base hits from their best player (Ryan Zimmerman), they still feel the need to look toward scratching out a run every once in a while to win. And Johnson’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work move brought the winning run home in a 5-4 victory over the Cubs.

That was, of course, after it almost went horribly wrong the first time.

On the first pitch of Wilson Ramos’ at-bat in the seventh, Michael Morse broke toward home with the squeeze play on - only Ramos missed the sign. Morse was charging toward home when Ramos took a full swing, nearly drilling Morse in the head with a foul ball down the third base line.

“You’re thinking he’s going to bunt the ball, and he swings the bat, and you go, ‘Ohhh!’” third base coach Bo Porter said.

“You don’t know what to do,” Morse said. “I’m glad Kerry Wood was throwing hard. He put a good swing on the ball, but he just missed it.”

It was a near-disaster, with Morse - who’d just missed three games after getting hit in the forearm by a pitch - almost taking a direct shot on a line drive. So naturally, Johnson called for it again.

Ramos took the next pitch, and Johnson put the squeeze sign on again. Porter had taken Ramos aside after the first one, to review the sign in case it came up again, and Johnson figured, there’s no way the Cubs would expect it a second time - especially when he’d never called for a squeeze in his managerial career.

“When he put it on (the first time), I was surprised, which is probably how they were,” Morse said. “Why not put it on again? They probably thought, ‘In a million years, he wouldn’t put it on again.’ That’s the way Davey works, and that’s why he’s such a great manager.”

Ideally, it’s not the way Johnson would like to work; he needed the run only because the Nationals were an anemic 1-for-16 with runners in scoring position, stranding 11 runners and missing a chance to blow open a game against the Cubs’ weak pitching staff. Jayson Werth, the only Nationals starter without a hit, stranded four runner and missed a fly ball that put Starlin Castro on base for Aramis Ramirez’s homer in the sixth. Things had gotten so bad that when Werth drove a fly ball deep to right in the seventh, moving Morse to third, he actually got an ovation from the crowd of 19,651.

But bizarrely enough, it was that play that put Morse in position for the squeeze, and gave Johnson a chance to exploit a reverse lock.

“He put it on again, and I was like, ‘Stay cool, Mike, stay cool. Don’t give it away. Poker face, here we go,’ ” Morse said. “We caught them by surprise, and it was great.”