Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr on not walking Pete Kozma, shutting down Stephen Strasburg

October 18, 2012

(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

In the days since the Nationals squandered Game 5 of the NLDS to the St. Cardinals, Manager Davey Johnson has heard countless second-guesses about his decision in the ninth inning to not walk Pete Kozma. It turns out the first person to question him was his own bench coach, in real time.

In an interview earlier this week with a Canadian radio station, bench coach Randy Knorr said he asked Johnson in the moment if he wanted to walk Kozma, but also that he understood Johnson’s ultimate decision to pitch to Kozma, who lined the game-winning single off Drew Storen to right field.

As a refresher: The Nationals had two outs following Daniel Descalso’s game-tying, two-run single in the ninth inning. After Descalso stole second with a 1-2 count on Kozma, runners stood on second and third. Closer Jason Motte stood on deck, and the Cardinals had only one pinch-hitter remaining on the bench, backup catcher Tony Cruz.

Johnson liked the matchup for Storen and did not want to load the bases – Storen had already walked two batters in the inning, and he didn’t want to give the Storen the chance to walk in the go-ahead run.

“The only thing I kick myself about was, we had a chance to walk Kozma to get Cruz up to hit to get Motte out of the game at a tie ballgame before Kozma got the two-out hit to drive in two runs,” Knorr said to host Jeff Sammut on 590 The Fan in Toronto. “I kind of looked back at him and said, ‘What do you want to do here?’ I think the whole dugout was so shocked that they scored the two runs, anyway. Because we thought we had a good chance of winning. It happened so fast. There was a couple pitches that we thought we should have got. But after you look at them, [home plate umpire] Alfonso [Marquez] did a nice job. They were balls. …

“I kind of looked at him and said, ‘What do you want to do right here?’ And I understand his point. He said, ‘I’m not walking him.’ Drew had already walked two guys in that inning. To load the bases up in a tie ball game, not to say he would have walked the guy, but already walked two guys. It put a little more pressure on him if we did that.”

When the host followed up, Knorr said he thought to walk Kozma primarily, “Just to get Motte out of the game in a tie ballgame.” The Cardinals had already burned their best relievers and would have to go to Fernando Salas instead of Motte, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth. 

Knorr, a strong candidate to replace Johnson as the Nationals’ manager whenever he steps aside, covered some other interesting ground in his interview, which can be heard here. He said he agreed with the decision to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg, because Strasburg’s performance in his final few starts made Knorr believe Strasburg would be injured if he kept pitching.

“I have no regrets,” Knorr said. “The years I’ve managed, being up here, it’s always been like that for me: It’s always about the player first. It’s so easy for people to say, ‘You only have one shot at that.’ And that’s fine. If that’s the way it is, it’s not meant to be. A lot of people, what they don’t realize, guys with Tommy John, they don’t hurt their elbow any more. They end up hurting another body part. Watching him pitch his last three games, he looked tired to me. People don’t see that. They just say, ‘Oh, you would have won.’ That’s not true though. I saw a guy that looked tired. … His stuff wasn’t as crisp, as sharp as it was in the past. I didn’t have this conversation with Mike Rizzo. This is my own belief. I think he would have hurt something else.”

Knorr shared a story about Bryce Harper from before Game 5. Harper entered the decisive game 1 for 18 in the series. After Harper finished his first round of batting practice, he followed protocol by running around the bases.

“He ran by me,” Knorr said. “He said, ‘God, it feels good to be on the bases again.’ ” For him to make a comment like that tells me where is, that he’s okay.”

Harper would smash a triple in his at-bat, and in his second he crushed a home run to right field, becoming only the second teenager to homer in postseason history.

Harper’s extra-base hits helped stake the Nationals to a 6-0 lead. Like the Cardinals said in the aftermath, Knorr felt the Nationals’ inexperience hurt them.

“I just think at the last moment, the nerves got us a little bit,” Knorr said. “We were up by two going into the top of the ninth. We were tying to be too perfect. We were trying not to lose it rather than win it, and it cost us.”

Knorr is a baseball rat, a career backup catcher who played for 17 years and won two World Series rings with the Blue Jays (which explains his continued popularity and relevance in Toronto). But he cannot bring himself to watch the playoffs yet.

“I can’t watch baseball right now,” Knorr said. “My stomach hurts too much. I’ll eventually watch the games again. I just need a couple days of not watching them.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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