What is the best thing for a team that has gone through a traumatic week it after having to replace the manager and then suffer through a terrible road trip, culminating in a sweep 3000 miles away?
That wish was fulfilled in Davey Johnson’s first home game as the manager of the Washington Nationals on Friday night at Nats Park with a 2-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Tom Gorzelanny was brilliant for seven innings and an unlikely hero provided some walk-off flair to lifts the spirits of Nats Town.
With the game tied at one in the bottom of the ninth, Johnson called on the oldest player sitting on his bench, 43-year-old Matt Stairs, to pinch hit for shortstop Ian Desmond with runners on first and third. All Stairs need to do was hit it out of the infield, either via pop-fly or a dribbler through the infield. For a guy with a .148 batting average through 54 at bats this season, not only was that a difficult task, but seemingly impossible. First day in front of the home fans, with the critical Washington press corps about to invade his office after the game and Johnson is putting in Matt Freaking Stairs?
“I have a lot of confidence in him, I want to get him going,” Johnson said after the game. “I think he can hit falling out of bed. Runner on third, one out – that is the guy I want out there.”
Perhaps Johnson is remembering a different Stairs, a younger, more virile player who literally could sit on the bench for a month and then hit a pinch-hit home run with his eyes closed. Stairs has made a career of that situation. Johnson could be forgiven for his memory. After all, it has been 11 years since he last managed a big league ball club (the Dodgers in 1999-2000). Hell, Johnson had not even managed a home game in this millennia (note, millenniums starts in the first year – 2001 – as opposed to the turn of the century).
Pirates reliever Tim Wood then served the game to Stairs in a golden chalice. Ninety-five miles-per-hour. Straight down the center of the zone, no movement. All Stairs need to do was get the ball to accidentally hit his bat and the game would be over.
Stairs did more than that. He had his swing of the season. It was a touch late to catch up with Wood’s heat completely, but had enough timing to get the fat part of the bat on the ball and send it screaming to right center, just to the left of the Washington bullpen. The only question was whether or not the it would leave the ballpark. The ball caromed off the top of the outfield fence, about a foot from going over and pinch runner Alex Cora trotted home.
Stairs may have extended his careers three years with that hit. Or, at least as long as Johnson is around.
“I’ve got to put everything I can do to win this game,” Johnson said. “Twenty-five guys have to contribute … a lot of guys have not been swinging the bat like they should.”
Desmond would be one of the guys not swinging. He is hitting .222 on the year with 71 strikeouts, third on the team behind Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa. Desmond is a streaky hitter, but it must be embarrassing to be called out of the game in a big spot where a hit will return momentum to the club and get you mobbed at home plate.
Gorzelanny was terrific for the second start in a row. The pitcher went seven innings scattering six hits with one walk and eight strikeouts.
Gorzelanny’s velocity has picked up in the last several months. In the beginning of the season he was throwing in the 88-90 MPH range, he is now between 89-92 with highs up 93 at times. He has always had great movement to his pitches and the increased velocity makes him much harder to hit. The one run that the Pirates scored was unearned, a result of two errors in third inning, one a bad throw by Gorzelanny himself on a sacrifice bunt that the pitcher field and “threw” to first base, a gimp of a throw that hardly made it to the base.
The Pirates held that 1-0 lead until the first pitch of the bottom of the sixth inning when Pirates’ starter Charlie Morton allowed a rocket off the bat of center fielder Roger Bernadina that skipped the fence in right to make it 1-1. It was Bernadina’s fifth home run of the year and 17th RBI.
“I think he deserves to play every day and I am going to give him that chance,” Johnson said of Bernadina.
The Johnson Era begins in Nats Town and the Washington get back to .500, entering the first game of the second half of the season with a 41-41 record. A traumatic win behind them, punctuated by a dramatic walk-off win on the Friday of the Fourth of July weekend in the nation’s capital. Excitement in mid-season form.
I would not have it any other way for the last game that I will be covering the Nats for WeLoveDC. As of July 15th I will be departing the Washington area and heading back to my homeland – Boston, Massachusetts. I will miss everyone that I have come to know in D.C. and the memories we have shared over the last year between the Capitals, Wizards and Nationals. From the beginning of the journey with the launch of TBD, through a roller coaster of a Caps season to finishing it off with a Matt Stairs walk-off wall banger, I have had a terrific time. Thank you.