Manager Matt Williams isn’t totally to blame for what’s happened to the Nats this season—they are, hands down, the most disappointing team in baseball, and their 93-win over-under from the start of the year is looking more and more hilarious by the day—but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be punted into the Sun.
Injuries have been a big, big problem. The Nats planned on running out an everyday lineup that included Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Denard Span in the outfield. Werth has played in just 66 games in 2015, Span in just 61. Span’s absence, in particular, hurts: he’s the only left-handed bat penciled into their regular lineup other than Bryce Harper, and the only natural leadoff man on the roster.
The infield has had it just as bad. Injuries have held 2014 MVP candidate Anthony Rendon to 57 games, and repurposed first-baseman and cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman to 95 games. In order to facilitate Zimmerman’s move to first base, the team let Adam LaRoche, another key left-handed bat from their 96-win 2014 season, move on to the White Sox before the season. Where they were counting on Zimmerman to provide reasonably first-baseman-like production as the new cleanup guy, they’ve instead fallen back upon such luminaries as Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore, once or twice even slotting in diminutive middle-infielder and world-class team photo troll Danny Espinosa at first base in a pinch.
Pitchers, too: Stephen Strasburg has missed multiple starts with upper body issues; Doug Fister, last season’s big pitching acquisition (and who beat out Tanner Roark for the final spot in this year’s rotation), made just 15 starts before injuries and ineffectiveness pushed him first to the DL and, finally, to the bullpen. Casey Janssen, Craig Stammen, and Aaron Barrett have all been injured. It’s been a tough season.
So, okay, it could be said with juuuuuust enough credibility that some combination of outrageous injury woes and Ian Desmond turning into a pumpkin brought the team into their recent series against the Cardinals in St. Louis at an underwhelming 66-63 and in desperate need of a lengthy run if they were to have any hope of salvaging their very dim playoff hopes. The thinking, though, was that if a finally healthy Nats team could yank away a series win from the Cards before heading into a homestand featuring a four-game tuneup series against the disastrously bad Braves, they had a chance in hell of shrinking New York’s division lead such that a series sweep over the Mets this week might potentially put the Nats back in the driver’s seat in the NL East. Stranger things have happened.
Hanging onto a two-run lead late in the opening game of the Cardinals series, Janssen gave up consecutive singles to open the bottom half of the seventh inning. Following a double-play that left a runner on third, Janssen walked Matt Carpenter on four pitches, perhaps signaling that, you know, he might not have his best stuff on this night. Rather than go back to his bullpen for a fresh arm, Williams kept Janssen on the mound to face outfielder Stephen Piscotty, who slapped Janssen’s 21st pitch of the inning into left field to make it a one run game. Williams, still to that point evidently unconvinced of his pitcher’s ineffectiveness, kept Janssen out to face Jhonny Peralta, who kept the line moving by dropping Janssen’s 26th pitch of the inning softly into right field to tie the game. The Nats would go on to lose the game, 8-5.
Alarms! Sirens! Flashing red lights! It’s easy—perfectly easy; wonderfully, brutally easy—to second-guess these kinds of managing decisions when they fail, so much so that it’s best to resist the impulse altogether: if either one of the soft singles that plated either of those runs had been hit 10 degrees left or right of their exact trajectory, the Nats open the eighth inning with a one- or two-run lead and no one questions the decision to keep a struggling reliever on the mound in such an important spot. But! With the benefit of having watched the game slip away up close, surely a competent baseball manager wouldn’t repeat the same mistake, if for no other reason than pure superstition. The margin for error for this Nats team is razor thin—now is the time to abandon the marathon mentality central to a season-long playoff chase and manage each game as a discrete and absolutely vital one-off event.
It’s expectations like those that made the following night’s loss so goddamn teeth-grindingly frustrating. Leading (yep) 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth, setup man Drew Storen put his first two batters on, in an eerie replay of Tuesday’s debacle. But! Here would be a chance for Williams to make amends, that rare opportunity to replay a moment in time and, this time, get it right! Yank the struggling reliever off the mound and hand the ball to Jonathan Papelbon, newly acquired closer, the man brought on to replace Storen in that role presumably for the exact reason that he’s, you know, better in those exact clutch situations.
Alas, no: Papelbon was left chilling in the bullpen. An error plated a run and, with two men on and no outs, Storen was left on the mound to intentionally walk Matt Carpenter (it’s getting eerier!) to load the bases and get to (yep) Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty, doing what you’re supposed to do, reached out and tapped Storen’s second pitch into play, plating the tying run with a double-play grounder.
Even that, though, isn’t the end. With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, Williams brought on Janssen, who got two quick outs with a grounder and a pop up before pinch-hitter Cody Stanley drilled a double to left. Janssen, rattled, walked the following batter.
Okay. Now. The Nats screwed this up in the first game, leaving a reliever on the mound in an absolutely crucial spot to clean up a bad mess of his own making. Now they’d screwed it up just an inning ago, leaving Storen out there to blow a late lead. Here was the time, at last, to bring on the marquee name of your entire bullpen, the guy you traded for, the guy whose job it is to take the mound in the most pressure-packed moments of a close baseball game. Instead, Janssen took to the rubber again, to face Brandon Moss, a 2014 AL All-Star as a member of the Oakland Athletics. Moss cranked Janssen’s 21st pitch of the inning 421 feet to center, and the Nats lost, for the second night in a row, by the score of 8-5.
Williams, speaking in defense of his late-game moves, offered the following rationale (via the Washington Post), none of which makes any sense at all:
“[Papelbon’s] our closer,” Matt Williams said Wednesday morning in his weekly spot with “The Junkies” on 106.7 The Fan, speaking of Papelbon, idle the previous two nights. “He’s the one that closes the game.”
“So everybody wants to know why you don’t use Papelbon in that situation,” Williams told the Junkies, uttering something upon which we could all agree. “Let’s say, for instance, ‘Pap’ throws a clean ninth and we score in the 10th. Who’s closing the game for us? I guess it’d be ‘Somebody,’ right?”
“All these people want to know why Papelbon isn’t in the game,” Williams said. “Because we lost. He’s our closer. He’s the one that closes the game.”
This is the most jarringly stupid thing a baseball manager has said in a good long while.
And here’s how much Matt Williams believes his own bullshit: two nights later, with the Nats trailing the Braves 2-1, Williams brought Papelbon off the bench in the non-saviest of all non-save situations and left him in there to throw 28 pitches across two innings of relief work while the Nats battled back for a walk-off win. BUT WHO WILL CLOSE THE GAME??????
This is the appropriate context through which to view yesterday’s catastrophic loss to the Mets, in which Max Scherzer was allowed to hit for himself with runners on second and third and two outs with the Nats clinging to a one-run lead. Scherzer had, to that point, given up six hits, and every single one of them was for extra bases. That was the moment, right there: the Nats needed nothing more impressive than a single to crack the game wide open. Even stranding those two runners, the Nats needed someone on the mound who could get through an inning of work without getting pounded, and that was very certainly not going to be Max Scherzer. What Williams did, with the whole of his bench and bullpen available to him and his season on the line, was send an unsteady and shop-worn pitcher to bat, and then an unsteady and shop-worn pitcher to the mound. The Nats would go on to lose 8-5.