The Nationals moved only three runners into scoring position all day during their 2-0 opening day loss to the Braves, drawing two walks and slapping five hits. Their last, best chance to score came in the seventh, when Danny Espinosa smoked a one-out double to left-center and then moved to third on a groundout by Ivan Rodriguez.
The situation – two outs, seventh inning, tying run at the plate – led to the most interesting and potentially pivotal strategic decisions of the game. Ultimately, Manager Jim Riggleman chose Laynce Nix over pinch-hitting specialist Matt Stairs, and Peter Moylan struck out Nix swinging to keep the Nationals scoreless.
After Rodriguez’s grounder, Riggleman sent Jerry Hairston to the on-deck circle in the pitcher’s spot to face left-handed reliever Eric O’Flaherty. Fredi Gonzalez, managing his first game for the Braves, countered with right-hander Moylan, as Riggleman assumed he would.
Riggleman pulled back Hairston and sent Nix – not Stairs – to face Moylan. Not using Stairs was a difficult decision. Riggleman figured the Braves would not risk walking Nix, but he worried Moylan would pitch around Stairs in order to face Ian Desmond. (Over his career, the side-winding Moylan has held right-handed batters to a .211 batting average.)
Effectively, convinced Stairs would put too much fear in the Braves, Riggleman chose Nix-Moylan over Desmond-Moylan. That, he believed, was the best way to give a left-handed hitter a chance to tie the game.
“That was a tough call,” Riggleman said. “I felt if I put Stairs up there, they really wouldn’t let him hit. I thought they would kind of dance around him. I thought we had a better chance of getting a left-hander a pitch there by putting Nix up there. I had a confidence that Laynce would get him.”
Riggleman didn’t say it, but another factor may have also been in play. Looking ahead, he would have noticed the likelihood of Ivan Rodriguez coming to the plate during a potential ninth-inning rally. Presumably, he would have chosen to hit for Rodriguez against right-handed Braves closer Craig Kimbrel. This is speculation, but it’s possible Riggleman also wanted to save Stairs for later.
That probably was not the deciding factor, and, again, this is just a theory. But it may have entered Riggleman’s thought process when decided on Nix over Stairs.