VIERA, Fla. — It was the kind of breakdown that, had it occurred in the regular season, would have led to some food tables being overturned or some riot-act being read in its aftermath. But on closer examination, the way the Washington Nationals coached and ran themselves out of a first-and-third, no-out situation in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday in a meaningless exhibition game reveals a delicious feast of inside-baseball strategy and some insight into Manager Davey Johnson’s philosophies.
The resulting 1-1 tie with the Miami Marlins, which by all accounts should have been a 2-1 win, will be long forgotten over the course of the long slog of the baseball season. But to the principal actors in Saturday’s snafu, the lesson will be long remembered.
“I’m glad it happened here,” third base coach Bo Porter said, “as opposed to next month in Washington.”
The situation was this: bottom of the ninth, tie game, nobody out. Nationals outfielders Brett Carroll and Jason Michaels, neither of them a fast runner, were on first and third, respectively. The Marlins brought their infield in — standard baseball protocol — to cut down the potential winning run at the plate.
But on a 2-2 pitch, reserve catcher Jhonatan Solano hit a grounder to the left of Marlins second baseman Donovan Solano (yes, his brother), who, after Carroll froze, ran Carroll back toward first, and flipped the ball to first baseman Jeff Dominguez. Dominguez stepped on first for the force out, then chased down Carroll and applied the tag. Double play. And all the while, Michaels remained frozen at third.
The way the ball was hit, the outcome was almost predetermined.
“What you don’t want to do right there is run right into the tag,” Carroll said. “I was at least trying to buy some time [by getting into a rundown], hoping they’d make a bad throw, and maybe Michaels can go home.”
“I didn’t think I could make it,” Michaels said. “Let’s not force something.”
When Roger Bernadina followed by grounding out to second, the inning and — because the Nationals were out of pitchers — the game were over.
The double play was a fluky play. Because of the sharper angles created by having the infield playing in, a groundball in almost any other direction would have been difficult to turn into a double play.
“You could watch another thousand games,” Porter said, “and not see that play again.”
But when you look deeper, the Nationals’ mistakes reveal themselves.
First, it must be noted that Johnson, per his own tradition, has yet to take over management of the Nationals’ offense — the running game, the calling of hit-and-run plays, etc. Monday’s off-day for the Nationals, the only one of the spring, serves as the line of demarcation for Johnson: Beginning Tuesday, he will handle strategy himself, a system that, naturally, will carry over into the season.
Why wait until then to take over? Because it allows Johnson’s coaches to get a taste of game-management and to develop their own strategic sensibilities.
“He wants to see what [the coaches’] thought processes are,” said bench coach Randy Knorr. “But he’s paying attention the whole time.”
Indeed, he is. After Saturday’s breakdown, an irritated Johnson made it clear to all involved that the Nationals’ coaches had botched the play.
“That was not a good picture to see,” Johnson said. “We’ve been pretty good, but that wasn’t pretty.”
Johnson believes the proper play in that situation — first and third, no outs, tie game, infield in — is to send the runner from first base (Carroll) on the pitch. In fact, such a move is considered almost standard. You run the risk of a line-out double play, but almost completely eliminate the more likely risk of a groundball double play.
“For me, it’s easy: You send the runner,” said Nationals special assistant Pat Corrales, a former big league manager and longtime bench coach to Bobby Cox in Atlanta. “Bobby would tell you the same thing.”
For one thing, since the runner on first is essentially meaningless (the runner on third being the winning run), the opponents would almost certainly cede the stolen base without a play — particularly when, with the infield in, defending against the stolen base would leave a huge hole for the batter to potentially slash a grounder through.
For another thing, with the runner in motion, should the batter hit a groundball, the only play for an infielder would be to look the lead runner back to third, then go to first. The go-ahead run would still be at third, with one out, where a flyball to the outfield scores him.
But there is still one deeper layer to the strategy. If the runner on first steals second, the opposition would probably respond by intentionally walking the batter, thus creating force outs at every base and the greater likelihood of a double play. But had the Marlins done so, they would have been walking a weaker batter (Solano) for a stronger one (on-deck hitter Bernadina). Yet another reason for the Nationals to have sent Carroll.
Finally, with the Nationals’ coaches on their own, there was also a mix-up between Porter, the third base coach, and Trent Jewett, the first base coach. The former wanted Carroll to run; the latter told him to stay. Carroll listened to Jewett, who was closer in proximity.
“If I had it to do over again,” Carroll said, “I’d just go ahead and steal [on the] first pitch.”