The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Matt Williams strongly defends his bullpen strategy after crushing loss to Cardinals

(By  Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

After the Nats suffered a devastating late-inning loss to the Cardinals on Tuesday night, keeping them 6.5 games behind the Mets in the NL East, fans and media members mostly focused in on one question: Why, in the ninth inning of a tied game, did the Nats go back to Casey Janssen — who had fared poorly in a 26-pitch appearance on Monday — rather than turn to closer Jonathan Papelbon.

That simplifies the situation, of course. Also worth noting: the Nats had a two-run lead in the eighth inning before Drew Storen yielded two runs. The pitcher spot was due up third in the top of the 1oth, if that inning happened. And the Nats had just three relievers left in the bullpen: Papelbon, Janssen, and Sammy Solis.

Williams spoke briefly on the matter Tuesday night, but he was far more expansive Wednesday morning during a sometimes contentious interview with the Junkies on 106.7 The Fan.

“We’ve used everybody just about to get to the eighth inning,” he began, when asked to explain his thought process. “We’ve got it setup for the eighth and the ninth. The eighth doesn’t go our way, and the score is tied. So everybody wants to know why you don’t use Papelbon in that situation? Let’s say, for instance, Pap throws a clean ninth and we score in the 10th. Who’s closing the game for us? I guess it’d be ‘Somebody,’ right?

“All these people want to know why Papelbon isn’t in the game. Because we lost,” Williams continued. “He’s our closer. He’s the the one that closes the game. Now when you’re at home, it’s a different story. It’s a different story because you always have the hammer at home. You always have the last at-bat at home. But on the road it’s a different story. You know, 99 times out of 100, every single manager is not going to use their closer on the road in a tie game because they need somebody to close that game.”

It was suggested to Williams that Janssen could have pitched a theoretical 10th if the Nats went to extra innings and took the lead.

He could,” Williams allowed. “Sammy Solis could as well. But Sammy’s our long guy. So what we tried to do last night was stay off Casey, because he had such a heavy workload the night before. Again, it gets down to the result of the game, and the result of the game was a three-run homer. But Casey also worked through the first two outs of that game and had the previous hitter two strikes and just couldn’t put him away. So you look at the result, and the result says ‘Oh you should do something different,’ but you don’t use your closer in that regard because he needs to close that game out.”

Still later, it was suggested that Papelbon could have thrown two innings, entering in the ninth and remaining in the game for the theoretical 10th.

We can use him two innings, we certainly can, but let’s take a look at the game,” Williams said. “If you guys want to talk intricacies of the game, then let’s look at the intricacies. [Ian Desmond] just made the last out. It was 7-8-9 in the order [coming up]. So that being said, we’re going to bring Pap in, and unless we double switch for Desi in that situation, we can’t use Pap for two innings. We need a one-inning guy there.

“Listen, it all depends on the game, it all depends on what’s happening during the course of the game,” Williams said. “And frankly, to get into a conversation like this, in my opinion, is irrelevant. We need a guy to close the game out, which is our closer, who is perfect this year in saving games. We’ve used everybody else in the bullpen. We have one guy left, and that’s Sammy Solis, and Casey Janssen had two outs and left a pitch up. Drew Storen came in and gave up a base hit, he hit a guy with a slider, we made an error on a bunt play, and there’s your two runs.”

Williams was also asked how often managers would bring in their closers in non-traditional situations.

It doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “I mean, again, we can look back to the World Series last year, and [Madison] Bumgarner coming in to save the game, but that’s the last game of the season. And he’s a starter. Listen, we had the lead in the eighth inning and fought hard to get there and it just didn’t happen. So you’ve got to move on, and move on to today.”

And Williams was asked whether his bullpen decisions are predetermined, in the sense of always doing the same thing in a road game that’s tied in the ninth inning.

They’re not predetermined,” he said. “It depends. It depends on how the game goes. Listen, we used everybody in the bullpen to get to the eighth inning and unfortunately that was the case last night because we had guys all over the basepaths, we had them threatening, we had to make moves. It is what the game is. We’re trying to win that game. And we had it set up the way we wanted it set up going into the eighth. It didn’t work.”

And he was asked whether, in a similar situation in the future, he might turn to Papelbon instead of Janssen.

In the ninth inning in a tied game? No,” he said. “If we score a run, we have to have somebody to close the game.”

Williams said that “desperate” would be the wrong word for the Nats situation, that the offense is coming along and his players are swinging the bat well. He said that both Tanner Roark and A.J. Cole will join the team soon, adding more arms in the bullpen. And he said he understood why the Junkies were asking him so many questions about this scenario.

Of course, but I’ve got to let you guys know the truth, too,” Williams said. “I mean, I could sit here and say yeah, [and use cliches], but I’m just giving you the intricacies of the game and the truth.”