There's a time to recognize that baseball is a long, six-month grind and as a manager you have to be aware not to burn out your bullpen. Then there's a time to play with a little more urgency. That time is now for the Washington Nationals.
Somebody wake up Matt Williams and tell him.
The Nationals entered Monday trailing the New York Mets by 5.5 games in the National League East. When Ryan Zimmerman hit a three-run home run off St. Louis Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist in the top of the seventh to give the Nationals a 5-3 lead, the Mets had already won to momentarily increase their lead. This is the kind of game the Nationals had to win, just to keep pace. They can't fall further back, especially knowing the Mets have a cakewalk schedule in September.
Here's the situation Williams faced: He had pinch-hit for Gio Gonzalez in the top of the seventh, so he had to go to his bullpen. The Cardinals had right-hander Mark Reynolds up first, then lefty Brandon Moss and then a pinch-hitter for the pitcher. If the inning extended, it would be Matt Carpenter and then right-handed batters Stephen Piscotty and Jhonny Peralta.
Williams went to Casey Janssen, the righty. OK. Bring him in to face Reynolds, get the inning off to a good start. No matter who Williams brought in, the Cardinals would be able to get the platoon advantage for two of the first three batters -- based on the pinch-hitter (likely Greg Garcia versus a righty or Tommy Pham versus a lefty). Reynolds singled to left. Moss reached on an infield single. Garcia came up.
Now, with things getting a little nervous, Williams had three options:
(A) Leave in Janssen;
(B) Bring in rookie left-hander Felipe Rivero to face Garcia and Carpenter;
(C) Use Drew Storen at some point in the seventh inning even though he's the eighth-inning guy.
Storen had thrown 13 pitches Sunday but hadn't pitched Friday or Saturday. He was rested. To be fair, it's possible that Storen's recent poor performances weighed on Williams' decision -- in six appearances between Aug. 7 and Aug. 23, Storen allowed 11 runs in 5⅔ innings. But he had since thrown three hitless appearances, two of which were holds to protect eighth-inning leads, suggesting Williams still considered Storen his No. 2 reliever behind trade deadline import Jonathan Papelbon.
As he should. Storen is better than Janssen or Rivero, with a better strikeout rate, a lower batting average allowed and a long track record of success.
Williams left in Janssen and Garcia grounded into a double play. Janssen then pitched around Carpenter, walking him on four pitches, which set up a righty-righty situation but also putting the tying run on base. Williams could have used Rivero, who had allowed a .213 average to left-handers and has good overall numbers, albeit in 33 innings that don't really tell us all that much about him.
Anyway, Janssen walked Carpenter and stayed in the game. This basically told us two things:
(A) Williams didn't trust Rivero against Carpenter;
(B) Williams didn't want to use Storen in the seventh inning.
This is what I mean by urgency. Rivero has been used primarily in low-leverage situations. He has just four holds because he has pitched mostly when the Nationals were behind. But if you're going to essentially intentionally walk Carpenter, why not then bring in Storen? What, he can't get four outs? You can't massage seven outs between Storen and Papelbon? You have to win this game. If you're going to lose, at least go down with your best relievers on the mound.
Piscotty singled. Peralta singled. Score tied. Both batters had two strikes on them but Janssen couldn't put them away. That's not a surprise; he had just 20 strikeouts in 31⅔ innings entering this game. Now Williams trusted Rivero, against Jason Heyward. Heyward doubled to deep left-center to knock in two runs and, after an intentional walk to Yadier Molina, Kolten Wong singled in another run. Williams watched his bullpen implode because he didn't want his eighth-inning guy to get four outs.
It's bad baseball. It's bad managing. And yes, it was bad relief pitching. The Nationals don't have the bullpen depth and quality to run it in an absolute conventional manner, at least this late in the season when in dire straits in the standings. Managing out of the box -- four outs instead of three for Storen -- is a test for the best managers, but Williams couldn't think his way into doing it.
At least Williams will have his two top relievers ready to go Tuesday. The question: Will Williams even be around to use them? After this game, it wouldn't surprise me to see general manager Mike Rizzo fire Williams on Tuesday morning. He may as well do it now, because he's almost guaranteed to do it after the season.