The best April baseball game in recent memory ended with a decision that demanded an explanation. Matt Kemp led off the 10th inning. Manager Davey Johnson stuck with left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, who had finished off the ninth inning. Kemp, a ferocious right-handed hitter, the best in the world right now, blasted a walk-off home run to center.
On the surface, it was an easily ridiculed call by Johnson. He still had right-handers Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen and even Ryan Perry in his bullpen. Why not go to one of them with the game on the line? Why let Kemp, tough enough to begin with, feast on a lefty?
Johnson provided his reasoning. First of all, Johnson considered Mattheus unavailable because he had thrown 21 pitches the night before. (Perry was fresh, but do you want to counter Kemp with a pitcher fresh from Class AAA?)
Behind Kemp awaited Andre Ethier, Mark Ellis and James Loney lefty, righty, lefty. Johnson did not have any remaining left-handers in the bullpen, because Sean Burnett had pitched the previous two days.
Also, Johnson loathed the idea of bringing in Stammen, leaving himself for Sunday with two long men who had pitched the day before. Between conserving arms and ensuring a lefty would face Ethier and, either later in the 10th or in 11th, Loney, Johnson considered Gorzelanny the best option.
“At that point, I’ve got two left-handers coming up behind [Kemp] and I figured he was going to pitch him close there,” Johnson said. “And he’s my long man. I need another inning out of him. I really don’t want to go to my other long man, and I used Mattheus and Burnett two days in a row. So if you want to go ahead and throw the kitchen sink out there and have nothing left for tomorrow, that’s not a wise way to go about it.”
Johnson was right about Gorzelanny pitching Kemp close. Gorzelanny got ahead of Kemp, 1-2. Kemp entered the game with a 1.430 OPS, but the Nationals contained him all night. Stephen Strasburg induced a double play from him and struck him out twice.
But when Gorzelanny had the advantage, he could not get his man. Gorzelanny threw a fastball that stayed up and out over the plate. Kemp destroyed it, and on came the “M-V-P!” chants.
“You don’t like to get beat when there’s two strikes and a ball and you throw one right in his wheel[house],” Johnson said.