A transforming season that saw the Washington Nationals lead the National League in victories suddenly became a season of “what ifs” on Saturday night, with the Nats losing an historic 2-1 eighteen inning contest to the San Francisco Giants. The loss leaves the Nats now having to notch three “must wins” to advance to the NLCS — two of them on the road.
With two outs in the ninth inning, and starter Jordan Zimmermann coasting to a 1-0 victory, Nats skipper Matt Williams walked to the mound, took the ball from Zimmermann, and called on closer Drew Storen to get the final out of the game. Storen couldn’t do it — giving up a hit to Buster Posey and a game-tying double to Pablo Sandoval.
What the Nationals have notched their win if Williams had stuck with Zimmermann? Would the outcome have been different had home plate umpire Vic Carapazza not have tightened the strike zone on the D.C. righty? We’ll never know. Instead, nine innings after Zimmermann left the game, Giants first sacker Brandon Belt homered off of Tanner Roark to give the Giants their improbable 2-1 win.
Williams explained his decision to lift Zimmermann to the press following the loss: “If he got in trouble in the ninth or got a baserunner, we were going to bring our closer in,” Williams said. “That is what we have done all year. Zimmermann got the first two guys, he wasn’t going to face Posey . . . We decided to go with the closer.”
The 18 inning game was the longest in MLB post-season history and lived up to its billing. Zimmermann dueled a revived Tim Hudson through seven complete innings (Hudson left, down 1-0, after 7.1), as both pitchers matched 1-2-3 lines. Hudson’s only hiccup came in the bottom of the 3rd, when an Anthony Rendon single scored Asdrubal Cabrera for Washington’s lone run.
The Giants first run (and the one that knotted the game at one apiece) in the top of the 9th provided the sell-out crowd with the most dramatic moment of the game. After closer Storen gave up a hit to Posey, and with Joe Panik on second, third sacker Pablo Sandoval followed with a dipsy-doodle stroke down the left field line. Panik scored, but Bryce Harper winged a throw to Ian Desmond, who gunned out Posey at the plate.
The play was reviewed, but the umpire’s call on the close tag of Posey by Wilson Ramos stood and the Nats and Giants headed to extra innings. What followed was a marathon as both teams emptied their bullpens, until Brandon Belt’s home run in the top of the 18th.
The extra innings marathon feature pitching that was nearly as brilliant as Zimmermann’s. Craig Stammen and the iffy Rafael Soriano (and Tyler Clippard and Jerry Blevins — and everyone else) stepped up for the Nationals, while Yusmeiro Petit was brilliant in six innings for the Giants. But, in the end, it was Belt’s blast that made the difference.
“I just wanted to get on base for the guys behind me: `Get `em on, get `em over and get `em in.’ Fortunately, I put a good enough swing on it,” Belt said after the Giants’ win.
Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The best commentary on Williams’ 9th inning decision that we’ve read, or heard, comes for the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell. Writing this morning, Boswell questioned whether Williams made the right decision in bringing Storen in in relief . . .
For Boswell, at least, the answer is “no.” It’s hard to disagree. Williams himself noted in his post-game presser that “it’s easy to second guess” and that “hindsight is 20-20.” All true. But the words are Exhibit A that Boswell isn’t the only one questioning the Williams decision — Williams is too. And while Williams is no Ned Yost (the Kansas City Curse), we are left to wonder why he simply couldn’t utter the words “what the hell, he got us this far . . .”
Boswell comes up with the only explanation out there: Williams thinks through a plan, implements it, and follows it through — no matter what. “From the first day of spring training, Williams has been a man defined by his detailed plans, his schedules and his love of predictable order,” Boswell writes. “It has served him and his team 96-wins well. But he is not very flexible . . .”
That seems right to us. Our only mumbled addition is a defense of Williams that goes something like this: having an inflexible plan is better than not having one at all — which was the case in Chicago and Cincinnati during the Dusty Baker years . . .
Inaction is sometimes a “virtue,” as Boswell writes, and last night in the 9th was certainly one of them for the Nationals. But if Washington fans think bad decision making is a fault, they should have been in Chicago during the Prior-Wood era, or in Cincinnati (where arms go to die) two years ago . . .
We’ll take Williams, despite his faults, in lieu of the more undisciplined approach of Davey Johnson, or the incoherent (lets fight with the players) style of the dreadful Yost. That said, it wouldn’t be too much to ask for Matty to admit what we all know to be true, particularly in the wake of heartbreakers like Saturday night. “This one is on me . . .”
But we can’t let the moment pass without reflecting on the other unnecessary intervention in Saturday’s game. Home plate umpire Vic Carapazza’s strike zone was the most incoherent we’ve seen in some time. He lowered the strike zone on Bryce Harper (who yapped at him in disgust), then raised it on Asdrubal Cabrera, who was tossed (along with Williams) when Cabrera and Williams argued it . . .
Carapazza was lousy, and we’re not the only ones who think so. MASN analyst F.P. Santangelo allowed that Carpazazza called “a terrible game,” MLB Network veteran Mark DeRosa speculated that Carapazza was out of his depth (“maybe the stage was too big for him”) and Jon Heyman noted that Carapazza’s 9th inning strike zone was, ah, “borderline . . .”
Nevermind. It’s all history now. The Nationals are on to San Francisco, where they face elimination at the hands of a Giants team that finds a way to win — or, perhaps, sometimes simply figure that, if they hang in there long enough, the other guys will find a way to lose . . .