Disaster encroached and his boss sat powerless in a back room, and bench coach Randy Knorr made the boldest decision of the Nationals’ season. Knorr had become the acting manager after Davey Johnson’s first ejection of the season. Let there be no doubt, he was fully in charge.
“That wasn’t my game,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “It was Randy’s.”
Knorr did not like what he saw from Rafael Soriano as he inherited a non-save situation. As the ninth inning crumbled, Knorr took action. With two runs having scored, two runners on base and Pedro Alvarez at the plate with one out, Knorr marched to the mound and replaced the $28 million closer Soriano with 22-year-old rookie Ian Krol.
“I was watching him pitch, and in the past, I’ve seen him pitch and when it’s not a save opportunity, he doesn’t have the same effect when he’s pitching,” Knorr said. “He wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate and a couple lefties were coming up. I like the way Krol throws the ball. Figured, if you don’t want to be in that mode to shut the game down, I’ll bring somebody else in.”
And so Soriano – the two-time all-star with 25 saves under his belt, the most experienced player in the Nationals’ clubhouse – skulked off the mound, pulled from a game for the first time all season. In jogged Krol. His first warm-up pitch skipped to the backstop.
“Haven’t felt nerves like that since my debut,” Krol said. “So it was kind of crazy to be out there in that situation. Something that I’m not comfortable with. Something that I don’t normally do.”
Krol could not prevent the tying runs from scoring, but he managed to keep the score even and set up Bryce Harper’s walk-off homer in a 9-7 victory. Krol walked Alvarez, and two batters later he gave up a two-run single to Josh Harrison. Would Soriano have fared better or worse? Who can say? Undeniably, Knorr’s decision gave the Nationals a jolt.
“It’s not an easy decision to make,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Nobody ever wants to do that to your closer. I’m glad I don’t have to make those kind of decisions. But Rafi’s been great all year. Krol’s been great all year. It’s unfortunate that it happened that way, but those guys are professionals and I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Knorr showed surprising candor in addressing Soriano’s demeanor when pitching in a non-save situation. When Soriano finished an inning that’s not a save, he does not bother with the ritual untucking of his jersey. When he enters a non-save situation, he does not perform his typical ritual, writing a message in the dirt with his finger and speaking into his hat.
The results, though, tell a different story. In save situations this season, Soriano has a 3.10 ERA and opponents are hitting .259 off him with a .683 OPS. In 13 non-save situations before today, Soriano had a 0.69 ERA and opponents hit .234 with a .584 OPS against him.
Still, Knorr sent an important message. Every player on the field needs to focus no matter the situation, and no special treatment for stars.
At the postgame news conference, only Knorr spoke. Johnson did not want to take attention from Knorr. He also said, “I didn’t want to talk about my ejection and get in more trouble.”
Because of the ejection, Knorr managed the end of the game and guided the Nationals, somehow, to a win. In the happy clubhouse afterward, clubhouse manager Mike Wallace approached Krol with the ball and lineup card, souvenirs from his first career win. Krol joked that he had always envisioned getting them under different circumstances, but that he was still happy to win. “That’s all that matters, right?” he said.