As the Nationals’ season plummeted into irrelevance, criticism of Manager Matt Williams crescendoed, drowning out his defenders, fairly or not. Doubt destroys credibility quickly when paired with bad results, and the man making the on-field decisions received a barrage of blame from near and far before he was fired on Monday after two seasons.
Williams made tens of thousands of decisions after taking over as manager in 2014, some as trivial as who would hit sixth on June 23, 2014 (Ian Desmond, if you’re curious), others more crucial – such as who would pitch the ninth inning in a tie game in New York in early August. Thousands of those decisions paid off. A few more did not. Here are seven of Williams’s most scrutinized decisions, none of which likely sealed his fate, but which dented his credibility beyond imminent repair.
THE GAME: Oct. 4, 2014: Game 2, 2014 National League Division Series
THE DECISION: Pulling Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game to bring in Drew Storen.
THE SITUATION: With the Nationals trailing the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants by a game, Zimmermann was dominating. A start after he threw a no-hitter to end the regular season, he was threatening to face the minimum in his first start of the postseason. By the top of the ninth inning, he had allowed three hits – one a bunt single – and walked no one. Matt Duffy struck out. Gregor Blanco flied out to center, and at that point, the Nationals had a 97 percent win expectancy.
Then Zimmermann walked Joe Panik, which could be reasonably read as a sign of fatigue for a guy who has been known to go weeks between walks. The Nationals’ win expectancy dipped – to 93 percent.
Giants catcher Buster Posey headed to the plate, and when he did, Williams opted to pull Zimmermann for Storen. Posey would have been facing Zimmermann for the fourth time that game. Zimmermann was allowing hitters a batting average 40 points higher the fourth time they saw him than the third that year. Posey had two hits against Zimmermann in seven at-bats against him in 2014. Posey was 1 for 2 against Storen before that game.
THE OUTCOME: Posey singled. Pablo Sandoval, who has a .412 average against Zimmermann in his career, doubled. Tie game.
“If he got in trouble in the ninth or got a base runner, we were going to bring our closer in,” Williams said after that game. “That’s what we’ve done all year.”
After being an out away from tying the series, the Nationals played nine extra innings and fell when Brandon Belt homered in the 18th. Not long afterward, they flew to San Francisco, where their season ended two days later.
THE GAME: Oct. 7, 2014: Game 4, 2014 NLDS
THE DECISION: Bringing Aaron Barrett into a seventh-inning jam with Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard available.
THE SITUATION: Losing meant elimination for the Nationals that day in San Francisco, when Gio Gonzalez lasted four uncomfortable innings before handing his team’s fate to its bullpen. Bryce Harper’s moonshot against Hunter Strickland had tied the game in the top of the seventh, at which point Williams went to left-handed Matt Thornton to begin the bottom of the inning. He recorded one out and allowed two hits. With right-handed Hunter Pence up next, Williams chose Aaron Barrett – a rookie reliever who turned heads when he made the team out of spring training – instead of also-available right-handers Clippard, Storen or even starter Strasburg, who was available in an emergency.
THE OUTCOME: Barrett walked Pence to load the bases, then threw a wild pitch to Pablo Sandoval that allowed the go-ahead run to score. The Nationals lost, 3-2, their season over because, as Williams said after the game, “those are our seventh-inning guys. That’s how we set this up. We had two lefties at the top of the inning, and if we got to the righties, we were going to Barrett. That’s what he’s done for us all year long. We’re certainly not going to use our closer in the seventh inning.” As it happened, they did, as Rafael Soriano had to relieve Barrett and then pitch the eighth.
THE GAME: July 31, 2015: Series opener at Citi Field
THE DECISION: Not using Jonathan Papelbon in a tie game.
THE SITUATION: The Nationals headed into a Friday night game against the Mets ahead in the National League East, reincorporating stars Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, in good position at the trade deadline. Matt Harvey started for New York, and the Nationals trailed 1-0 into the eighth inning, when they tied the game on Yunel Escobar’s RBI single.
The Nationals had just acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline, so he was available. As it turned out, neither Casey Janssen nor Drew Storen was available that night – the first because of a neck issue, the second because of fatigue – though Williams would not admit that until later. Aaron Barrett and Felipe Rivero held the Mets scoreless into the 12th, but Papelbon never pitched. Some managers are reluctant to use their closers in a tie game on the road, so that is not an uncommon thought process. In a key game in what seemed to be a pivotal series even before it materialized as such, Williams stuck with a rookie as his best pitcher looked on.
THE OUTCOME: Rivero began his third inning of work in the top of the 12th, and allowed a walk-off home run to Wilmer Flores that propelled the Mets through a three-game sweep.
THE GAME: Aug. 1, 2015: Second game against the Mets at Citi Field
THE DECISION: Leaving Joe Ross in to begin the seventh, not using Drew Storen or Jonathan Papelbon.
THE SITUATION: After their walk-off loss Friday night, the Nationals found themselves in a tie game against the Mets after six innings Saturday. Rookie Joe Ross had pitched his guts out, particularly given the magnitude of the stage he was pitching on, and had thrown 84 pitches though six one-run innings with the heart of the order due in the seventh. Williams opted to let Ross try to get through the inning, which began with left-handed hitting Lucas Duda – already 2 for 2 with a home run that day.
“He’s got the lead. He’s at 84 pitches. He just went through the last inning fine,” Williams said. “Standard decision, as far as I’m concerned.”
Perhaps in May, on some lesser stage with less at stake, sticking with the rookie there would be a no-brainer. Perhaps it was, even in front of an electric Citi Field crowd, despite what happened next. The Nationals had Casey Janssen, Storen and Papelbon – their projected relievers for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings – healthy and available.
THE OUTCOME: Duda homered, his second of the night, and the Nationals fell, 3-2. Their lead in the National League East fell to a game. About 24 hours later, they didn’t have a lead at all.
THE GAME: Sept. 1, 2015 vs. Cardinals at Busch Stadium
THE DECISION: Bringing in Janssen to pitch the bottom of the ninth of a tie game against the Cardinals.
THE SITUATION: The day before this game, Janssen had entered the game in the seventh inning with the Nationals leading 5-3, gotten two quick outs, then allowed a walk and two singles to spark the Cardinals’ rally that would tie the game. St. Louis went on to win. The next night, after Storen allowed St. Louis to tie the game in the seventh, Williams had three options heading to the bottom of the ninth: Janssen, left-handed rookie Sammy Solis or closer Jonathan Papelbon.
“He’s our closer,” Williams said of Papelbon. “ We want him closing games out.”
He went back to Janssen, a 33-year-old veteran, who was pushing 50 pitches in two games.
THE OUTCOME: Janssen allowed a three-run home run to Brandon Moss. The Nationals lost again, the second straight game they should have won at a time they desperately needed to. They salvaged the series with a win the next day – closed out by Papelbon.
THE GAME: Sept. 8, 2015: vs. Mets at Nationals Park
THE DECISION: Asking Anthony Rendon to bunt on a 3-1 count in the bottom of the ninth.
THE SITUATION: In the second game of a must-win three-game home series against the Mets – one that, in fairness, should never have boiled down to one bunt because the Nationals had a 7-1 lead at one point – the Nationals trailed heading to the bottom of the ninth. Jayson Werth led off the inning with a single, which brought Anthony Rendon to the plate ahead of Bryce Harper. Rendon, last year’s Silver Slugger award winner at third base, worked a 3-1 count against Mets fireballing closer Jeurys Familia. Williams left the bunt sign on.
“We had a chance to get Jayson on second base with arguably our two best hitters [Harper and Yunel Escobar] coming to the plate,” Williams said.
True. If Rendon bunts successfully, Werth moves to second. The Mets likely walk Harper, taking the bat out of their best player’s hands with a prime double-play candidate in Escobar headed to the plate. If he doesn’t, you lose an out. He is a .296 career hitter on 3-1 counts and one of the most patient hitters in the lineup – a solid candidate for a walk. He had bunted four times in his career.
THE OUTCOME: Rendon did not bunt successfully, pushing the bunt too far and allowing the Mets to get Werth at second base. Harper walked, then Escobar hit into a double play, the Nationals’ last chance to salvage a lost inning gone – Williams’s most criticized choice of offensive tactics in 2015. He made another on Aug. 26, allowing Yunel Escobar to swing at a 3-0 pitch that turned into a double-play ball and ended what might have been a game-tying rally against the Padres in the bottom of the seventh.
“I can remember a lot of success in those situations. So you have to take that when it doesn’t happen for you,” Williams said after that game. “We’re not going to change the way we play. We do it all the time.”
THE GAME: Sept. 27, 2015, vs. Phillies at Nationals Park
THE DECISION: Allowing Jonathan Papelbon to pitch the ninth inning after choking Bryce Harper in the dugout.
THE SITUATION: Papelbon got an out in the eighth inning of what was then a tie game. In the bottom of the inning, when Papelbon barked at Bryce Harper for not running hard on a short flyball, Harper did not back down and Papelbon grabbed his throat. They had to be separated by teammates and coaches. Harper did not return to right field, but Williams let Papelbon return to the mound for the ninth.
“He’s our closer,” Williams said then.
THE OUTCOME: Total disbelief. Fans, media and others wondered how Williams could allow Papelbon to continue pitching after attacking one of baseball’s biggest stars in the dugout. Williams clarified later that he did not see the extent of the fight. If he had, he said, he would not have used Papelbon again, adding that he was “livid” at what he saw when he saw it. The team suspended Papelbon for the remainder of the season and sat Harper for a game, too – a move Williams could not fully explain afterward, though it was “an organizational decision,” likely not entirely up to him.
More on the Nationals: