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Surprise heroes come through for Nats
If someone had posed the question, “Who would be the biggest heroes of the first postseason victory in Nationals history?” I doubt that anyone would have answered, “Ryan Mattheus and Tyler Moore.”
Mattheus is a middle-inning reliever, Moore a rookie first baseman-outfielder. Yet on Sunday — a day that left-hander Gio Gonzalez issued seven walks and Nationals hitters struck out 13 times — Mattheus and Moore offered fresh evidence of why the Nats won 98 games, the most in the National League.
Mattheus did the unthinkable, becoming the first pitcher in postseason history to complete an inning with just two pitches . . . against the Cardinals’ 4-5 hitters, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina . . . with the bases loaded and none out in the seventh inning and the Nats trailing Game 1 of the Division Series, 2-1.
Moore’s contribution was more conventional — that is, if you consider it conventional for a rookie pinch-hitter to deliver a go-ahead, two-run single … on a 2-2 count with two outs in the eighth inning … against a pitcher he had never faced, on a pitch that was a foot outside.
Don’t get me wrong: The Nationals feature plenty of quality veterans and budding stars. Oh, and lest anyone forget, the Nats also feature wise old Davey Johnson, who prevailed in an eighth-inning staredown with Cardinals first-year manager Mike Matheny, boasting later, “I was going to control the matchup, no matter what.”
Still, the most impressive thing about the Nats is the depth of their roster — really, the depth of their entire organization. Yes, the team was fortunate to “earn” the first pick in the draft in back-to-back years when right-hander Stephen Strasburg and center fielder Bryce Harper were available. But general manager Mike Rizzo has hit a number of clean singles as well as home runs.
Mattheus was a clean single, arriving in a trade from the Rockies for left-hander Joe Beimel on July 31, 2009. The Nats were looking to purge the rest of Beimel’s $2 million salary. Mattheus had recently undergone Tommy John surgery, but Rizzo viewed him as a tough kid from Sacramento with a big arm. Worth a shot.
Moore was a Nationals obsession even before Rizzo joined the franchise in July 2006. The Nats actually drafted Moore three times — in ’05, ’06 and again in ’08 after Rizzo became the GM. Moore, who finally signed as a 16th-round pick out of Mississippi State, now is one of the game’s more promising young hitters — and in the view of Nats shortstop Ian Desmond, maybe this postseason’s Allen Craig.
Of course, neither Mattheus nor Moore would have gotten their chances Sunday if not for the maneuverings of Johnson, who is pushing buttons in the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
Johnson said he actually second-guessed himself for going to Mattheus one hitter too late. But the seventh developed quickly — the Cardinals, after only five pitches, had two runners on base. Right-hander Craig Stammen then hit Matt Holliday, the hitter whom Johnson originally wanted Mattheus to face.
Bases loaded, none out.
Welcome to the postseason, Ryan!
“Let’s get a groundball,” Johnson told Mattheus during the pitching change.
Mattheus was thinking the same thing — he’ll be the first to tell you that he is not a swing-and-miss type. As it turned out, he did just what Johnson asked — twice — when a mere fly ball could have produced a sacrifice fly and extended the Cardinals’ lead.
Craig bounced into a force. Molina hit into a 5-4-3 double play. Mattheus, who said he had never pitched in such a jam, bounded into the dugout, elated. “I was going crazy … I was pumped,” he said. “I was trying to get the guys going, get some momentum in our favor.”
Sure enough, he did.
The Nationals — after an error, Desmond’s third hit and an unexpected sacrifice by Danny Espinosa — advanced runners to second and third with one out in the eighth. Right-hander Mitchell Boggs then struck out Kurt Suzuki on a 97-mph fastball, setting up the game’s key strategic moment with the pitcher’s spot due.
Johnson inserted his best pinch-hitter, the left-handed hitting Chad Tracy, leaving Matheny with three choices:
• Stick with Boggs.
• Summon Marc Rzepczynski, the Cardinals’ only left-handed reliever.
• Make a double-switch to get closer Jason Motte into the game.
Matheny ruled out the double-switch, saying he was not comfortable with the accompanying move — the removal of Holliday, Craig or Molina. Johnson expected his Cardinals’ counterpart to stay the course, saying, “You know, I track him, and he usually leaves it to Boggs.” Instead, Matheny turned to Rzepczynski, reprising a strategy that had worked in the wild-card game.
Johnson, asked afterward about Motte, said, “I didn’t think he was warming up at that point.” Informed that Motte indeed was throwing, Johnson essentially said that he didn’t care. Tracy would have faced Motte, and Tracy was his best pinch-hitter, right?
Well, it never got to that.
Johnson hit the right-handed hitting Moore for Tracy, restoring the Nationals’ platoon advantage against Rzepczynski, who has had a trying season.
Here’s “Scrabble” on his fateful pitch to Moore:
“It was a foot off the plate, just a little bit up,” Rzepczynski said. “The 2-1 pitch he went after, it was a pitch out of the zone. Yadi (Molina) and I were thinking the same thing, try and go further out.
“It was just enough up that he was able to extend his hands. He literally hit it right off the end of his bat. He did a good job of going to get it. He was able to get under it just enough to have it fall right in front of Carlos (Beltran in right field).”
Both runs scored, Tyler Clippard and Storen were perfect in the final two innings and the Nationals — making their first postseason appearance — won a game in which they probably should have been routed.
Mattheus credited his success in part to guidance from Edwin Jackson and Mike Gonzalez, the only two Nationals pitchers with playoff experience. Moore said he had studied video of Rzepczynski and relied on veteran infielder Mark DeRosa for tips on how to approach him.
This is how good teams operate, the experienced counseling the inexperienced, everyone playing a role.
The Nationals, as the Cardinals rediscovered in Game 1, are a very good team.