Josh Willingham's Gamble Nets Nationals a Victory Over Reds

Josh Willingham scores the game-winning run after Cincinnati was slow to get the ball into the infield.
Josh Willingham scores the game-winning run after Cincinnati was slow to get the ball into the infield. (By David Kohl -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

CINCINNATI, Aug. 16 -- Some decisions you don't think about. You don't calculate the risks and rewards, because you don't have time. You just go, consequences be damned. You're standing on third base, the go-ahead run, and you see an opponent in the shallow outfield get all discombobulated; he's holding the ball, and for some reason, can't figure out where to throw it.

You see the indecisiveness. You break home.

"Just spur of the moment," Josh Willingham said. "I took off."

The critical moment in Washington's 5-4 win against Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon opened two entranceways for a little postgame armchair psychology. Those in the losing clubhouse at Great American Ball Park sought to understand what happened: Why had their second baseman scrambled into the shallow outfield to grab the ball, only to pick it up and imitate a sleepwalker? Those in the winning clubhouse -- and indeed, the Nationals have now won three in a row, and 11 of 15 in August -- thought more about the quick-snap move of Willingham.

"A heads-up play," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "You can't teach that. That was all him."

The play started simply enough: Washington trailed 4-3. Willingham stood on first. Adam Dunn waited on second.

Two were out. Arthur Rhodes, 39 years old, was pitching.

Riggleman, at that moment, was contending with a short bench because of his eight-man bullpen. But he also had a dilemma: Alberto González, hitting .179 (15 for 84) since the all-star break, was due up. Earlier, in the sixth, with González batting, Willingham on third and one out, Riggleman had actually ordered a suicide squeeze -- but the play had backfired when Cincinnati starter Justin Lehr hummed an inside breaking ball, causing Washington's second baseman to flinch and pull back his bunt attempt. Willingham was tagged out by the catcher about 15 feet from home plate.

"We were hoping he could at least get the bat on it, and he didn't," Riggleman explained. "You know, that's the way it goes. When you put that play on, who knows what's gonna happen."

So what did Riggleman do here? Rather than risk another González at-bat, he called on his one bench player who's almost never a bench player -- Ryan Zimmerman.

Zimmerman, pinch-hitting for just the third time this year, drove a Rhodes slider to right, and in charged Chris Dickerson. The right fielder's sprawling attempt, a de facto fire drill roll, didn't work. The ball deflected off Dickerson toward second baseman Drew Sutton, who'd scrambled into shallow right field. Just one problem: Sutton, after grabbing the ball, looked like a customer trying to choose between ice cream flavors. By this point, Dunn had already scored, tying the score at 4.

The play should have been over, but Willingham noticed Sutton lob a careless throw toward the infield, aimed at nobody in particular.

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