Any nine-game winning streak, especially one that includes four walk-off victories in five games, is built on plays that sneak by unnoticed. The game-winning hits, followed by liquids flying out of coolers and players streaming from the dugout, stick in your mind. But those big moments happen only after small moments allow it.
One of those small moments occurred Wednesday night in the top of the eighth inning. Drew Storen had entered with one out. Cliff Pennington had just stolen second base off him and Wilson Ramos, putting the go-ahead run in scoring position. Right-handed slugger Mark Trumbo stood at the plate.
While putting the Nationals in danger, Pennington’s steal also enabled first baseman Adam LaRoche to shift to his right. All series, under orders from defensive coordinator Mark Wiedemaier, LaRoche had played way off the base, in what is normally the hole between the second baseman and first baseman.
Sure enough, Trumbo smashed a groundball to the right side. Watching only the ball the come off the bat, blind to the infielders, a viewer would have assumed Trumbo had just drilled a game-tying single. Playing in Wiedemaier’s shift, LaRoche didn’t have to move to field the ball and hustle to first for the second out. Storen escaped the inning, and in the bottom of the ninth, the Nationals broke what remained a tie score.
“If I was playing where I normally do, I wouldn’t have been even able to dive and catch that ball,” LaRoche said Thursday afternoon. “I was over, way off normal.”
LaRoche had been playing Trumbo off the base for the entire series, with several factors to consider. With runners on first and second and less than two outs, for example, LaRoche jockeys with the runner on first. In a situation where he’s not holding the runner on, he still wants to shift. But if he gets too of a start to his right, the runner can either avoid a double play or break one up with menace.
“My responsibility is to try to cover that hole as much as I can, but I also got to protect my middle infielders,” LaRoche said. “If I don’t hold the guy at first, I don’t want to get them killed on a double play ball. I also have to jockey to make sure he doesn’t get 30 feet off the bag. When nobody’s on first, then I’ve got the freedom to kind of get over a little bit more.”
Another factor LaRoche pointed out: When he shifts to the right on a hitter like Trumbo, he needs to also creep closer to home plate in allow himself enough to scamper to first and cover the bag. The shift helps LaRoche start in a more advantageous position. But it also restricts his range from that starting position.
With Manager Matt Williams and Wiedemaier on board, the Nationals have shifted more this season than ever before. In the eighth inning of Wednesday’s victory, a shift helped preserve a victory. LaRoche, who is frequently shifted against as a hitter, loved it then. That’s not always the case.
“You think it’s awesome when it works, and when it doesn’t, you think the shift is stupid,” LaRoche said. “When you get a lefty that hits a 10-hopper that would be right to the shortstop and there’s nobody there, I’ve done it when I’m hitting. It drives pitchers crazy. When it works, it’s great. They play the percentages. They look at the spray charts. It can look really good or really bad.”