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Williams makes all the right moves in Nats’ dramatic win

Sep 5, 2015, 12:49 PM EST

Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams is seen in the dugout during a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Handing out credit after Friday night’s dramatic 5-2 extra-inning victory over the Braves should seem like a pretty simple task. After all, it was Matt den Dekker and Michael Taylor that came through in crucial late-game at-bats to seal a critical Nationals win to lower the NL East deficit to five games.

But there may have been another hero on this night, and an unlikely one at that: Matt Williams.

That’s right, the Nats’ embattled skipper, who 72 hours earlier faced heavy criticism for a few questionable in-game tactical maneuvers, seemed to push all the right buttons Friday night that helped give his club a chance to pull off the victory. With every move he made, it appeared as though Williams was directly responding to his detractors who say he too often goes “by the book” in certain situations and that he lacks in-game feel.

It all started with the bases loaded in the fifth inning of a 1-1 game. With Tanner Roark on the mound having thrown just 69 pitches, Williams went to the bullpen early and brought in Matt Thornton, who has typically been used as a situational lefty later in games. The 38-year-old retired both A.J. Pierzynski and Adonis Garcia to end the Atlanta rally.

“Yeah, [he] nailed it today,” Thornton said of his manager. “We gotta find a way to win ballgames. We’re chasing and we don’t have a whole lot of time left, so every game matters, every situation matters. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first or the eighth. You’ve got to be ready to go at all times.”

“We know that Tanner’s limited [with pitch count],” Williams added. “We knew going in that it’s going to be into the bullpen fairly early. It was good matchups for Thorny there to come in and get those outs. You’ve got Pierzynski and then the righty as well. He did a nice job.”

Williams has caught the most flack in recent weeks for being too rigid in how he’s handled the bullpen — specifically how he’s used closer Jonathan Papelbon, opting to go to him almost exclusively when the Nats have the lead in the ninth inning. But after the Braves took a 2-1 lead in the eighth, he managed with the urgency that many claimed he didn’t have. He called upon his ace reliever to work the ninth by double switching for him and the aforementioned den Dekker. Both moves paid off immediately; Papelbon pitched two scoreless frames (the first time he’s pitched more than one inning since joining the Nats) that were sandwiched between den Dekker’s crucial two-out game-tying single.

“Matt just makes the decision and I follow him,” said Papelbon, who earned his first-ever win since being traded to Washington. “He’s skip. I’ve always told him ‘I’m good to go. You throw me when you need me. No need to ask me any day.'”

As an experienced closer, Papelbon is no stranger to having to get more than three outs to finish off a game. Including his time in Philly, Friday night marked his third outing of two innings this season. And since 2012, he’s had such eight appearances.

“[Papelbon]’s a gamer,” Thornton said. “He’s going to take the ball. It doesn’t matter if we’re losing by two and they want him to pitch, he’s going to go. Or throw two innings. He’s going to be ready to go at any time right now. He’s just like the rest of us out there, and ready to take the ball anytime they need us to.”

Of course, Williams saved the best for last, calling on Taylor (whose bruised knee kept him from starting) with two men on to seal the victory in the 10th with a dramatic three-run home run.

With his club in the middle of a pennant race and each game being bigger than the last one, is this how the skipper will handle things moving forward? Time will tell. But for one night, the oft-criticized Williams made all the right moves.

“A lot of decisions that had to be made tonight,” Papelbon said, “and I think most of the decisions that he made, they pulled through.”

  1. stoatva - Sep 5, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    Well done, by and large. I do regret that Williams had left himself no option (not that he’d consider any other) but to let Storen open the eighth inning against Freeman. The only suspense there was whether Freeman would homer or double.

    Everyone gets smarter in September. If you’re not already sick of hearing me say it, you will be by October. Last year, when the rosters returned to 25 men for the postseason, it turned out that Matt hadn’t really learned much, after all. Let’s hope we get the chance to see whether he’s “grown” as much as we like to imagine, come October.

    Go Nats!!!

  2. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 5, 2015 at 1:38 PM

    I also thought he used Thornton too early. I wanted Thornton available, late, to face Markakis, fill-in-the blank, Freeman, or Freeman, Pierszynski, whomever. I suppose Wms. was thinking of Storen’s 0-for-11 record against Freeman but Storen ended up having to face four LH hitters in a row and nothing good was going to come from that. But I can’t quarrel with the outcome. I know Roark had to come out at that point but I thought Rivero had enough stuff and experience to get two outs. On the other hand, the pitcher’s spot in the order was coming up so whoever finished the fifth wasn’t going to go two innings. So Thornton made some sense.

    For all of the pitchers the Nats have called up, there was only one LH so Williams’s ability to go match-up through extended innings is limited.

    If they manage to squeak into the playoffs, Rivero (95-99 mph) could be a weapon.

  3. veejh - Sep 5, 2015 at 1:51 PM

    I’ll give MW a pass for the day as he actually managed a game. Let’s see if he can back up that performance.

  4. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 5, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    Following the Mets/Harvey nonsense: no matter how gently they use him the remainder of the season there is no way he can carry them deep into the post-season (A) without hurting himself or (B) while pitching efficiently. Bumgardner pitched something like 45 post-season innings last year. Do the Mets really think Harvey can throw 230 innings coming off TJ surgery and a layoff of nearly a year-and-a half?

    If the Mets insist on pushing him through the regular season the rosie-glassed optimist in me says the result will be one skipped start and two lousy ones. DeGrom has had three bad-to-undistinguished starts in a row and no matter how many innings the Mets are expecting from him my sense is that he is running out of fuel. Syndergaard is probably nearing a for-real innings limit (and he tends to throw a lot of pitches). Matz doesn’t have much experience, let alone in a pennant race, Niese scares no one and Colon is over the hill (even if the Nats can’t hit him). Their pitching isn’t nearly as intimidating as some make it seem.

    • veejh - Sep 5, 2015 at 2:01 PM

      All signs point to their staff is running game out of gas. Only the uninformed casual fan thinks their staff is ironclad. If their bats regress to normal, we have a serious chance, especially if we catch fire, and there are signs that could very well happen.

    • virginiascopist - Sep 5, 2015 at 2:04 PM

      In addition, even with expanded rosters, their bullpen leaves a lot to be desired, which is a serious problem, seeing as their starters are not really going deep. Aside from Clippard and Familia, it’s quite a patchwork — and Terry Collins apparently does a terrible job managing it.

    • Nats Fan Zee - Sep 5, 2015 at 2:57 PM

      Mets and Terry Collins are experienced in blowing out arms. I agree with those that say their starting staff is running out of gas. We can pull this off but we will have to play almost flawlessly. Right now that means that Drew better stop effing around and start being the lights out guy we know he is … Especially since Matt Williams has finally woken up from his season long nap and is starting to make decisions that did not come from the “Washington Nationals Processes and Proceedure” handbook.

      • fstop1970 - Sep 7, 2015 at 1:57 AM

        I think Johan Santana would completely agree with your statement about Terry Collins and his abuse of the pitching staff, especially the starters.

  5. Section 222 - Sep 5, 2015 at 3:56 PM

    I don’t like to quote myself from earlier threads but I will here just to save time:

    ” Let’s be clear though — using Pap in the 9th was by the book, not some turning point in the education of MW. Completely different situation than Wednesday night in St. Louis.”

    Only the most casual fan would think that a manager should not pitch his closer in the top of the 9th in a close or tied game. The reason, in case there are some casual fans looking on, is that if you are playing at home there is no longer a possible save situation to save him for. The gutsy move last night was not bringing Pap in in the 9th. It was double switching to set him up to pitch 2 innings if necessary.

  6. natsred4dndc - Sep 5, 2015 at 4:53 PM

    Regarding “it appeared as though Williams was directly responding to his detractors who say he too often goes “by the book” in certain situations and that he lacks in-game feel”, I think somebody is giving themselves way too much credit. Matty manages his BP by the book through most of the regular season exactly to avoid the situation that Terry Collins has created in NY: a tired pitching staff that appears to be cracking, quite possibly preceding a massive September collapse (see earlier comments). And the tabloids, talk radio, and bloggers in NYC are going to crush him for it.
    OTOH, what do we have to work with in September? Most everybody has thrown a reasonable number of innings (Max being a possible exception) and is relatively fresh and ready to go. So that now, he can play matchup baseball (expanded rosters being another important factor there) when it is really needed, use a Thornton in the 6th when it is really needed, use Paps for two innings when it is really needed, and not be concerned about it.
    And don’t think that’s an accident; Matt talks about limiting how often his relievers “have to get up”, all the time, so it’s very clear that was the plan all along.

  7. Sam - Sep 5, 2015 at 8:25 PM

    No one has bothered to mention the fact that Williams pinch hit Ramos for Lobaton in the 9th, which was an incredibly stupid move. He had a lefty up against a fastball-slider pitcher and decided to give the pitcher back half of his arsenal by sending a right-handed batter to the plate. And, wouldn’t you know it, Ramos swing and missed badly on two sliders no where near the strike zone.

    Otherwise, I think MW did fine.

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