Washington starter Gio Gonzalez is solidifying his claim as one of the dominant left handers in the game, the latest evidence coming last night in Philadelphia, where the Nationals won a nail-biting thriller, 2-1. Gonzalez added nine strikeouts to his N.L. league-leading total, holding the Phillies to just three hits over six innings.
But this was Philadelphia — and Washington was Washington — as Gonzalez needed a little luck to notch his sixth win, and a rescue effort in the ninth inning from new semi-closer Sean Burnett. After Craig Stammen, the Nationals new ace long reliever held the Phillies scoreless in the seventh and eighth innings, Burnett was brought on to close the game — after another wild ride from Henry Rodriguez, who walked a batter, gave up a hit, and threw two wild pitches.
Following the victory, Nationals manager Davey Johnson confirmed that he is now looking for alternatives to Rodriguez as the team’s closer. “Henry’s either lights out or sometimes he’s exciting,” Johnson said after the victory. “I was hoping the first four hitters we’d get a couple outs. I wanted to get by the two big right-handers on their bench. But I had no choice the way it was going. I had to go get him and let [Burnett] face the right-handers.”
Johnson’s decision to lift Rodriguez was the talk of the Natmosphere this morning. “Despite a fastball that can reach 100 mph and two devastating breaking pitches, Rodriguez has blown three saves this season, turned a tie game into a loss and twice been hooked before he could lose,” Adam Kilgore wrote. And who will step into Rodriguez’s shoes? It’s not clear: “I’m going to sleep on it,” Johnson said. “But I’m looking at alternatives.”
It’s understandable why it’s taken this long for Johnson to make the change, despite the frustrations of Nationals fans: when he’s on, Rodriguez is overpowering, with a fastball that is unmatched in the game. The problem is that, while his stuff is “electric” (as they say), an elite closer must not only throw a fastball at 98 mph, he has to hit the strike zone. So far this season, that has proven too much for Rodriguez to do.
The Rodriguez controversy — and the near loss in Philadelphia in the 9th — eclipsed a solid win that came behind the hitting of Ian Desmond. Now batting in the fifth spot, Desmond provided the winning difference, stroking a second inning home run (his seventh of the season), that put the Nationals in front. But Desmond wasn’t finished: his fourth inning single to left scored Bryce Harper with what proved to be the winning run.
Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Davey Johnson’s search for an alternative to Henry Rodriguez was complicated by news that reliever Ryan Mattheus will be out for two weeks nursing a sore left foot. The injury bug has, thereby and officially, entered the bullpen. Brad Lidge threw in Philadelphia, but he’s not due back until June 15 . . .
Chien-Ming Wang could provide some help for the Nationals. The official day of Wang’s return was supposed to be Thursday, but he could be activated as early as today. Even so, with Mattheus down (if only temporarily), the field for a replacement for Rodriguez has narrowed . . .
The Nationals could always use Craig Stammen in the closer’s role if necessary. But it would have to be absolutely necessary. Stammen has been one of the most effective long relievers in the game, and our bet is that the powers that be would be hesitant to take him out of that role.
Stammen himself is hesitant to take on the responsibility: “I’ll leave that up to them,” Stammen said after last night’s Rodriguez adventure. “I [closed] in college and it was fun, but I don’t think I’ve quite earned it yet.”
What is true for Stammen is doubly true for eighth inning set-up man Tyler Clippard. All Star Clippard could be slotted into the ninth as a closer until Lidge or Storen’s return, by why do that when he’s proven so effective as a set-up man? The fewer shifts now, the better. . .
That leaves Sean Burnett. “I’m just going to do whatever they ask me to do,” Burnett said on Monday night. “That’s the way I’ve always been. Henry’s been good all year. He’s just had a little hiccup here the last couple weeks. But any time you can help your teammate out, that’s what we’re here to do.”