The frantic way these Washington Nationals win baseball games has driven Davey Johnson, 68 years old and more than 2,000 games into his managerial career, to new measures. Before Wednesday night, if his memory serves, he had never before called for a suicide squeeze bunt. “The way things are going,” Johnson said, “I figured now might be a good time.”
In one harried, daring sequence, Johnson called for two suicide squeezes in a span of three pitches. Right after Wilson Ramos missed a sign and endangered Michael Morse’s well-being, he scored him with his second attempt, lifting the Nationals to a 5-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs. The 19,631 fans at Nationals Park had witnessed a first.
Johnson had never before resorted to a squeeze play; he doesn’t even like to sacrifice bunt. But the Nationals will test any manager’s limits. Their past 10 victories have all come either by one run or in extra innings – Johnson, 5-5 after winning three straight over the Cubs, has yet to manage a two-run victory.
“You haven’t been here the last eight days that I’ve been here?” Johnson said when asked why he’d chosen Wednesday for his first squeeze play. “You got to open up the crackerjack box.”
The Nationals entered the seventh inning, as usual, tied. Tom Gorzelanny had allowed two two-run homers, the second of which followed a fielding gaffe in right field by Jayson Werth, who also continued his offensive drought with an 0-for-4 night. The Nationals had also crushed a pair of two-run homers, one in the first by Danny Espinosa and one by Ryan Zimmerman, who went 3 for 4 with two doubles and a walk.
Morse led off the seventh with a double, his second hit in his return from a bruised left forearm. Werth had looked lost at the plate in his first three at-bats, but against reliever Kerry Wood he pushed Morse to third base with a deep fly to right, which Reed Johnson chased down by making a running, leaping catch at the warning track.
Up came Ramos, a power-hitting catcher. On third stood Morse, a slow-footed first baseman. Johnson knew the Cubs would never expect a squeeze. He also knew he couldn’t send Morse home on contact; his speed and the Cubs’ drawn-in infield made it too risky. He also didn’t think the Cubs could order a pitch-out with Wood, who had shown recent wildness. So, he called his first-ever squeeze.
Third base coach Bo Porter whispered in Morse’s ear and gave the sign to Ramos. On the first pitch, Morse sprinted home – and Ramos stayed stationary in the box. He had missed the sign.
In his peripheral vision Ramos saw Morse sprinting and desperately swung, trying to foul off the ball. He ripped the ball straight back into the netting. Morse grabbed his head and turned around.
“That was a first,” Morse said. “Man, it was scary. You don’t know what to do.”
Morse walked back to third base, happy to still be both on base and alive. Ramos wandered up the third base line after Porter waved him over. Porter told him, “Make sure if we put it back on, you get it the next time.”
Back on? In the dugout, Johnson had not abandoned the idea. All the variables remained the same, except the Cubs would probably be expecting it even less.
For one pitch, Porter wiped his chest — the squeeze was off. Ramos looked for a pitch he could drive to the outfield for a sacrifice fly. But Wood fired a sinker outside, making the count 1-1. In the dugout, Johnson again gave the squeeze sign to Porter. He whispered to Morse, and this time, Ramos got it.
“Why not put it on again?” Morse said afterward. “They probably thought in a million years he wouldn’t put it on again.”
As Wood fired an inside, 97-mph fastball, Morse shockingly took off again. Ramos squared late and deadened the ball toward the right side. Morse scored easily, smiling and pumping his fist. Ramos walked back to the dugout and completed a row of high-fives. In the dugout, Morse and Ramos embraced and chatted.
“After he scored, he said, ‘You’re good, you’re good,’ ” Ramos said. “But I almost killed him.”
The game-winning bunt – and three scoreless innings of relief, capped by Drew Storen’s 22nd save – gave the Nationals the victory, but the most meaningful story line may have been Zimmerman’s powerful night. Since Johnson gave him the day off Sunday to rest his tender abdomen, Zimmerman is 5 for 8 with a walk.
In the ninth, Johnson wanted to avoid using Storen, who had already pitched in four of six days. Storen was angry at the notion of not pitching and told bullpen coach Jim Lett he was ready. “My favorite thing in the world is to pitch the ninth inning,” Storen said afterward. Johnson let him, and Storen recorded all three outs.
In the morning, Johnson had bumped his head on a shelf in his garage, leaving a small gash on his forehead. At night, he had done something he never had before.
“Must be brain-dead,” he joked. “It was another interesting ballgame. That seems like all we play around here.”