If Matt Stairs cared about such things, he would have breathed a sigh of relief when new Nationals manager Davey Johnson gave him a ringing pregame endorsement that was part wishful thinking, part knowledge that veteran hitters will eventually find a way to escape slumps. Asked about Stairs' role with the club before Friday night's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates - and given the opportunity to suggest that Stairs needed to start producing to keep his role as a pinch hitter on a power-starved club - Johnson instead diplomatically and emphatically spoke about how he needed Stairs to shake off his batting woes and be the hitter that the back of his baseball card says he is.
Translation: Forget about the anemic .132 average and the 4-for-32 log in pinch-hitting appearances Stairs toted into Friday's game, the 43-year-old wasn't in danger of losing his job any time soon.
Fast-forward to the ninth inning and Stairs found himself with an opportunity to reward his new skipper's faith in him. Stairs rocketed a pinch single off the wall in right-field, doubling his RBI total with one swing, ending a three-game losing streak with a 2-1 walkoff over the Pirates and giving Johnson his first win since taking the Nationals' helm Monday in Anaheim.
The 104th pinch hit of Stairs' career and his 87th career pinch-hit RBI also rewarded lefty Tom Gorzelanny for seven innings without allowing an earned run and ensured that Roger Bernadina's game-tying home run in the sixth inning wouldn't go for naught as the Nationals got back to .500 at 41-41.
"Bottom line, in this game, you have to succeed - and it's a numbers game," said Stairs, a native of St. John, New Brunswisk, who celebrated Canada Day in style. "Early in the season, the numbers weren't there, that's for sure. And i'd be the first guy to admit to it. And they're still not there. But I think hopefully this is a stepping stone. Tomorrow, when you come to the ballpark as a pinch hitter, when you get a chance to get a big knock and win a game, it gives you a lot of confidence. ... The confidence is there, knowing I had a good at-bat today."
It didn't hurt that Stairs had played in three straight games in Anaheim, serving as a designated hitter in an interleague series. Stairs hit eighth the first two games before drawing the cleanup spot on getaway day as Johnson tinkered with the lineup and rested several regulars. The 10 at-bats he amassed in three games matched his total from the previous 10 appearances in June, a fact not lost on Johnson.
"That was the deal, to get him some at-bats to get his timing back. That's my job, to get everybody back in shape," Johnson said.
So there was Stairs in a familiar role: game on the line, a grizzled old veteran with a chance to give the 68-year-old Johnson his first win as the Nationals manager in a taut game that looked headed for extra innings. The last time Johnson won as a major league manager, Stairs was only eight years deep into what's now a 19-year career.
Michael Morse had led off the ninth with a single up the middle against Tim Wood (0-3). A wild pitch sent Morse to second and Wood intentionally walked Danny Espinosa with a 2-0 count, hoping to set up a force. Johnson, showing the same managerial instincts that he left on the sidelines back in 2000, told WIlson Ramos to show bunt, but not to bunt into the wheel play the Pirates would put on. After a couple of pitches, Ramos drove a ball deep enough to right field to advance Alex Cora, who had come in as a pinch runner for Morse, to third.
With Ian Desmond due up, Johnson instead called on Stairs, who had finally gotten his first RBI of the season Tuesday, in his 44th game.
"I told Desi, 'Look, you're not swinging like I know you're capable of. Normally, I wouldn't do this, but there's a chance. I got to try to put everything I got in this thing,' " Johnson said.
Stairs made an admitted bad swing at the first pitch from Wood, fouling off a 95 mph sinker. When he saw the same pitch with the next offering, Stairs didn't miss.
"Whenever you chance to have three games in a row and you get 10 at-bats, your timing gets in there. ... When you leave the ballgame and you know you get 15 or 20 pitches per day, you feel good walking away from the batter's box," Stairs explained. "I came in today, we did a lot of work on some stuff. Stepped in the batter's box and took a terrible swing on the first swing and made an adjustment on the second one."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opted to pitch to the struggling Stairs instead of walking him to load the bases, a move that Johnson didn't question: "He's hitting .120 or something. I probably wouldn't have walked him either."
Said Stairs: "This is a game of numbers and I still believe I can come off the (bench) and hit anyone's fastball. ... I still believe that when I come up to the batter's box, I still put some fear into the other team's manager the way they approach."
He did just that, giving Johnson his first victory since Sept. 30, 2000, a 10-2 shellacking of the San Diego Padres in the Dodgers penultimate game.
"This became the all-time memory, right now," Johnson said, a smile crossing his face. "First win, like I said. (After not managing) 11 years in the big leagues, here in front of the home crowd. That's special. ... It's been a while."
Even longer than Stairs waited to contribute while wondering whether players coming back from injury would push him off the Nationals' roster.
"I'm just more relieved that we won," Stairs said. "That's a personal stat and I really don't look at those. ... Don't get me wrong: It's nice coming in and helping the team win a game. I've been stuck on zero RBIs almost all year and then I get a couple in two days. It's nice, you get in a swituation where (Johnson) believes you can come through in that situation."
Johnson certainly thinks Stairs still has some gas left in his tank. But the trust he showed in an aging veteran carries far more significance for Johnson.
"He's still not quite 100 percent, but that looked like 100 percent there," Johnson said. "That was a rocket. ...Twenty-five guys got to contribute if you're going to win and I've got all the confidence in the world in him."