When he returned to the dugout after striking out both batters he faced in the top of the eighth last night, Shawn Kelley had no idea he'd be returning to the mound for the top of the ninth.
Until Dusty Baker approached him with a simple question.
"He asked me how I felt, and I said I felt good," Kelley recalled. "He said: 'You're going back out.' That was pretty much the gist of it."
So it was that one of the Nationals' most impressive wins of the season - 4-1 over the Cubs - was closed out not by Jonathan Papelbon (who was unavailable with unspecified soreness) but instead by Kelley.
Not that the 32-year-old wasn't up to the challenge. Kelley wound up facing five Chicago batters. He retired them all, four via strikeout.
"With a three-run lead, I just wanted to get ahead," he said. "I didn't want to do them any favors or fall behind, then have to battle from behind to get this lineup out in hitters' counts. Just try to throw strike one and go from there."
The only batter who did put the ball in play against Kelley, Dexter Fowler, still was retired thanks to the right-hander's surprising display of dexterity. Fowler's hard grounder to first base was snagged by a diving Ryan Zimmerman, who threw a bit high to a hard-charging Kelley, who had to leap to catch the ball and get his foot down in time to nab the speedy leadoff man.
"That was awesome," Kelley said. "(Zimmerman) made a great play, so I just felt like I had to finish it for him so I could get him on the Top 10."
The Nationals have known all along Kelley could be counted upon to close in a pinch - he had four prior big league saves - but the situation had not previously presented itself. This time, with Papelbon watching from the dugout, Baker entrusted his veteran setup man in a save situation, though he also had left-hander Felipe Rivero warming in the bullpen just in case.
"He has had experience in those situations, and given the situation with his ups and downs, just like anybody else, this obviously is a great save for him," catcher Wilson Ramos said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Hopefully it gives him more confidence to keep doing his job out there, because he's been throwing the ball real well, hitting his spots. And today was an example how well he was hitting his spots with his pitches."
Baker said Papelbon was unavailable because he was "sore," though the manager declined to pinpoint the exact nature of his closer's problem, other than to say it wasn't his arm.
"Paps was feeling pretty sore, and he was ailing, so we didn't really have Pap tonight," Baker said. "We'll make a further evaluation (Tuesday)."