ST. LOUIS — When his Washington Nationals presented him with what would likely be their last, best chance to take the first game of their National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Manager Davey Johnson stood in the visitors’ dugout at Busch Stadium, all but a puppeteer. Michael Morse had reached base in the eighth inning on an error, and Ian Desmond followed with a single.
What came next: The mastery Johnson has displayed throughout his career. On Sunday evening, it helped the Nationals win a game.
“Davey’s pulled a lot of the right strings this year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “That’s why we are where we are.”
Game-winning rallies can be created by sheer talent, by force of will. The two-run eighth inning the Nationals provided in their 3-2 victory Sunday came as much because of guile. And it began when, with men on first and third and no one out, Johnson stepped out of his own character with his struggling second baseman, Danny Espinosa, at the plate.
“I don’t like to bunt,” Johnson said before invoking the name of his old manager in Baltimore. “I’m kind of from the Earl Weaver school: Just keep swinging.”
Yet when Espinosa swung Sunday, disaster. Three at-bats, three strikeouts. So after he swung through the first offering from Cardinals reliever Mitchell Boggs, the bunt was on. Morse, a slow runner, wasn’t likely to score. But Espinosa placed the bunt perfectly to advance Desmond to second.
“Most of the year, we’ve kind of played not that way,” Zimmerman said. “Davey’s more of a ‘I-don’t-like-to-give-outs-away, I’d-rather-let-my-guys-hit’ [manager]. I think that kind of shows you how significant that inning was in the game. If you can get two guys in scoring position right there, it takes one hit.”
But who would get it? Catcher Kurt Suzuki had the first chance against Boggs, but he was all but overwhelmed. When he got a 2-2 fastball, “I swung right through it,” he said. Two outs. The Cardinals were close.
With the pitcher’s spot up, Johnson made the logical move: Pinch-hit Chad Tracy, “our best bench player,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. Tracy, who hits from the left side, had just one career at-bat against Boggs. But Johnson’s move sent both dugouts spinning.
The way Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny figured, he had three options: Allow Boggs to face Tracy; bring in closer Jason Motte for a four-out save; or call on Marc Rzepczynski, the Cardinals’ only left-handed reliever.
“I actually did not think Mike was going to get Boggs,” Johnson said of Matheny.
But sticking with Boggs was problematic, because Tracy had 12 hits as a pinch-hitter this season, and Boggs may have been tiring. Going to Motte, whose spot in the batting order was up the next inning, would have involved a double-switch, which Matheny preferred not to do. So he went to Rzepczynski.
That, though, allowed Johnson to pull one more string: Bring in the right-handed hitting Tyler Moore, a rookie.
“I had faith that if they did make a move to remove Tracy from the game, that Zep would be able to get out one of their young right-handed pinch-hitters,” Matheny said.
Moore is, indeed, young at 25. He has appeared in just 75 major league games. But he knew, once Rzepczynski arrived, that it was his time.
“It’s happened before,” Moore said. “A lot of people don’t want to face Tracy, because he’s so good off the bench.”
In 29 at-bats as a pinch hitter, Moore had just six hits, but two were doubles and two were home runs. “He’s not a rookie anymore,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “These guys, they’re battle-tested by now.”
The battle in the eighth inning came down to Moore vs. Rzepczynski. With the count 2-1, Moore chased a sinker, down and away.
“I just talked to myself, calmed myself down, making sure something was in my zone,” Moore said. Except the pitch he got was outside again, off the plate.
“He hit a pitch that most people don’t even swing at, for the most part,” Rzepczynski said. And it fell into right field, scoring Morse and then Desmond, the tying and go-ahead runs.
One inning, five batters, two hits, one bunt, one pinch hitter who didn’t get to the plate and another who did. As Matheny said afterward: “That was the game.”
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Gallery: Photos from NLDS Game 1
Boswell: Key hit rewrote the script