It cannot be said Craig Stammen had zero experience as a closer before last night. In 2008, his fourth season in the minors, Stammen recorded a save at Class A Potomac. But, yeah, the 10th inning last night was a little different: the Nationals needed three outs for their biggest victory of the season, 42,000 fans screamed for him to implode and the St. Louis Cardinals were not sending up hitters fit for the Carolina League.
Stammen capped the Nationals’ zany, 6-4 victory over the Cardinals with his first career save. Back when the Nationals gathered for spring training, there was no guarantee Stammen, who spent 2011 in Class AAA Syracuse, would make the Nationals’ roster. He pitched his way on to the team and became an invaluable reliever, both setting up and pitching long relief as he posted a 2.41 ERA. Last night brought a new high point.
“No matter what inning you pitch, it’s about executing each pitch,” Stammen said. “That’s the mentality that I took in there. Definitely with the crowd going and it being a comeback, you got a little bit of adrenaline going.”
Adrenaline can be an enemy for a sinkerball pitcher like Stammen. An extra couple miles per hour sometimes straightens out the pitch, making it run through the sink. But “it’s a good thing for me,” Stammen said. “I don’t like to feel like my arm is dead.”
It was alive in the 10th. Matt Holliday led off with a single to right, but Stammen induced a 6-4-3 double play with a 93-mph sinker to Allen Craig. With one out to go, Stammen threw Yadier Molina five consecutive sliders. Molina swung at and missed the first two and the last. Stammen walked toward his catcher and slapped him high five, and the Nationals’ magic number had fallen to one.
“It’s a good feeling,” Stammen said. “This game was very important, to get to that one game to go. Especially when we had the lead early and losing the lead, not being able to pile on runs, it probably would have hurt us a little bit. But now we’re one day closer.”
A prominent postgame theme in the clubhouse last night concerned experience. The Nationals are mostly a collection of playoff virgins – on the current active roster, only Jayson Werth, Michael Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche, Edwin Jackson and Chien-Ming Wang have played in the postseason.
Still, the Nationals believe games like last night will steel them for October. For Stammen, the 10th inning last night surely provided a more valuable experience than his other save, back at Potomac.
“Going into that game is good for me,” Stammen said. “That’s the kind of feeling I’m going to get no matter what inning I pitch in the playoffs. If it’s the sixth inning, I’m sure the crowd is going to be similar. And pitching on the road is completely different than pitching at home, too.”