Trying times will test Jim Riggleman’s hold on Nationals clubhouse


Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman, left, is ejected after arguing with home plate umpire Todd Tichenor just two pitches into Sunday’s loss to the Orioles. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist May 22, 2011

These are the times when teams bond with the men who run them or fall apart. This is when you lose the clubhouse or find out that they’ve actually got your back. This is the section of the season when Jim Riggleman, the no-glamour manager with the one-year contract, may find out if he’s going to live out his dream of being a successful manager in his home town or if the story’s going to take an uglier turn. Which is it? We wait and see. But a good baseball man, short on pizazz, long on savvy, is under the gun.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Sometimes, baseball seems like it was invented to torment and test those who dare to play it every day for six months. In the past 10 days, the Washington Nationals have lost two extra-inning games by a run. That’ll annoy you. They have also lost four well-pitched games — 1-0, 3-0, 1-0 and 2-1 on Sunday to the Orioles — because their offense is pathetic. That’ll make you crazy, especially when one of your wins is 17-5. Chop those runs up in smaller pieces and the Nats might be 6-3 in their past nine games. After all, they’ve outscored their foes by 10 runs in that time. But instead they are 3-6 and have fallen to 21-25.

However, the last four days encapsulate what makes managers lose hair, sleep and slices of their sanity. On Thursday, Riggleman tried to get ejected from a game, but couldn’t get the heave-ho no matter how much he swore at umpire Phil Cuzzi. Replay showed that the ump had missed the call twice. The Nationals runner was safe, not out. And the first baseman’s foot was off the base, not on it.

“It didn’t matter what Rig yelled,” one National said. “If an ump thinks he blew it, the last thing he wants is to eject you so they replay the bad call on TV. If there’s no ejection, everybody forgets the play.”

On Friday, pitcher Jason Marquis threw a dugout tantrum after being taken out of a game. Only base-running blunders by the Orioles had granted him a 6-5 lead after four innings. But Marquis knew he’d qualify for a win if he could last one more inning. TV captured some — but far from all — of the fireworks as the pitcher screamed at a manager who had made exactly the right call. According to sources, Marquis got a well-deserved postgame earful from Riggleman. Make that both ears full. Now, everybody’s making nice.

Sunday was worse. First baseman Adam LaRoche told Riggleman he would see a shoulder specialist on Monday to consult on his torn left-shoulder labrum — that’s his third visit. Technically, that’s “no news.” But, in baseball, the third time isn’t a charm, especially for play-in-pain guys like LaRoche. It’s usually a trip to the disabled list for rest, sometimes followed by surgery if that doesn’t work, either. And it usually doesn’t. Last year, 100 RBI, this year, .172. The Nats have no other real first baseman — anywhere. Ian Desmond better get used to Mike Morse digging out his low throws.

Sunday also marked the ninth game that Jordan Zimmermann has pitched this season. That means he’s now been in one more game than Ryan Zimmerman, Riggleman’s best player, who is due back from stomach muscle surgery — someday. “When Ryan gets back, I may hug him,” said reliever Tyler Clippard.

With this as backdrop, perhaps you can understand why Riggleman was ejected from Sunday’s game after just two pitches. That’s not the record, even in Baltimore. Earl Weaver once greeted umpire Ron Luciano at home plate to exchange lineups and said, “Are you going to be as horsebleep today as you were last night?” So long, Earl.

Everybody sees a man’s true colors in different details. After Sunday’s loss, Riggleman manned up. His leadoff man Roger Bernadina stepped on home plate as he laid down — and apparently beat out — a drag bunt. Hitters often touch the plate as they do this, Nyjer Morgan almost always did, but few umps call the batter “out,” especially on the first hitter of the game. But it’s the correct call.

“It’s like most calls. They are right and we are wrong,” Riggleman said. Why did he get so mad? “That’s a call you never see get made. I got irritated.”

Last season, after an ejection, Riggleman hid and continued managing the game. “The umps saw me. I got disciplined for that,” said Riggleman. On Sunday, he couldn’t find an empty crypt to crawl in — every lurking spot was “too visible,” so Riggleman just told his coaches, “You guys run the ballgame.”

Of course, it was full of strategy. Not much of it worked for the Nats. Two innings, including the final out of the game, were ended on embarrassing strike-’em-out-throw-’em-out double plays when the Nats tried to steal on full-count pitches.

“Play the tape from many other games this season,” Riggleman said. “The guys are giving you 100 percent. We’ll break out.”

But when? At such times of stress, managers wonder about how their players really feel about them. Pitching coach Steve McCatty recalled playing for turbulent Billy Martin in Oakland when Billy the Kid got a death threat in Boston saying he would be shot in the dugout in the fourth inning. The FBI was notified. Martin wore a bulletproof vest.

“The fourth inning starts and he’s adjusting the vest,” said McCatty. “Everybody on the team went down to the other end of the dugout. Billy said, ‘Why are you down there?’ ”

“We want 'em to have a clear shot,” yelled McCatty as the team broke up.

Sooner or later, brilliant screw-loose Billy usually lost the clubhouse. But that day, he knew he still had ’em in his corner, ready to win with him and for him.

Without Zimmerman and now probably LaRoche, with rookies in key roles, how long can the Nats continue to grind out one tough, tight-pitching duel after another? How long can they play hard for Rig, stay close to .500 and wait for things to break their way?

They haven’t buckled yet. So maybe the answer is: Quite a while. That would be the fair outcome. But this is baseball. So, we can’t be sure.

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