Playoff baseball is often tense, littered with small decisions that start with who managers write into the line-up card to when to insert late inning defensive replacements. In the second game of the National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants, Nats manager Matt Williams was blessed with having to do nothing for eight-and-two-thirds innings. His starter, Jordan Zimmermann, had mowed through the Giants line-up, showing the kind of stuff that earned him a no-hitter during his last regular season start and had done so on exactly 100 pitches.
The importance of getting a win on Saturday night could hardly be overstated. The Giants, with two World Series wins in the last 4 years, had come to town and taken Game 1, and with the next two games of this best-of-five series on the West Coast, and Giants ace Madison Bumgarner waiting to start Game 3, a loss in Game 2 could have dealt a fatal blow to the Nats' season.
So with two outs in the top of the ninth and Zimmermann having issued a walk (on several borderline pitches that were not called strikes by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza), Williams strode to the mound and took the ball out of his ace's hand and gave it to a guy whose last post-season appearance was so painful that the team went out in the following off-season and spent $28 million over two years to bring in a replacement. And it wasn't as if Williams even asked Zimmermann if he could get that final out, didn't give him a chance to finish a game where he had retired 20 straight batters and only given up three hits. Nope. Just took that ball and handed to to Drew Storen, who faced two batters, both of whom got hits off him and but for a wonky slide at home plate, would have coughed up the lead, instead of leaving the game knotted at one.
Williams would not be forced to sit through what turned out to be another full game. When Asdrubal Cabrera was called out on strikes in the 10th inning and got thrown out for arguing the call, Williams came out of the dugout and was quickly sent to the showers too. By the time midnight struck, the Nats had fallen into an 0-2 series hole with a long flight west to ponder "what if."
Of course, you could look at the fact that the Nats only got one run off a 39-year-old pitcher with a 9-13 record and an ERA just south of four, or the 15 innings of shutout pitching the Giants got from starter Tim Hudson and their bullpen, or the fact that Zimmermann might have given up a hit to Buster Posey in the 9th inning and then people would have questioned why Williams did not pull Zimmermann for Storen. But the fact is, Zimmerman was not gassed. He was at 100 pitches and had retired the first two batters in the ninth with ease. The walk to Joe Panik was due to a couple of pitches that were called balls but at least one easily could have been called a strike.
Zimmermann had cruised through the game and, if "playing the game right" means letting your starter try to finish a game he has dominated, Zimmermann should have been given the chance to face Posey. If he got Posey out, the entire momentum of the series would have changed - a huge win by the staff ace, a fully rested bullpen, and a 1-1 series tie going to San Francisco. If he didn't, short of a home run, Posey could have only tied the game, at which point Williams could have come in with the hook. Instead, Williams showed he lacked confidence in the ace of his staff, damaged the psyche of his closer, burned every arm in his bullpen (all of whom will be "on call" tomorrow night in a do-or-die game three) and got tossed for arguing balls and strikes.
Sometimes baseball comes down to one small decision. On Saturday night, Matt Williams made the wrong one and severely harmed the team's chances of advancing to the National League Championship Series.