After the offense had remained flat for the better part of Thursday night’s series finale against the Rockies, a game which the Washington Nationals could have used to cut their deficit in the division to a mere three games heading into the last week in August, Michael Taylor turned on a pitch and sent it nearly 500 feet in the opposite direction. The game was tied 2-2, and Washington looked on the verge of another big win.
Half an inning later, those hopes quickly died. After Max Scherzer was pulled following a leadoff single by Jose Reyes, Felipe Rivero stepped in, setting into motion a series of events that ended with the Nationals down 3-2, a hole that they would not climb out of.
Rivero failed to accomplish his only task: get lefty Carlos Gonzalez out. It was Blake Treinen on next. He struck out Nolan Arenado, but after that, he surrendered the go-ahead RBI to Ben Paulsen. A groundout and a lucky bounce on a wild pitch limited the damage, but it was already too late. The Nationals comeback hopes had been squandered by the bullpen.
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What’s really confounding about the seventh inning, though, is Matt Thornton. Obviously, Thornton was available for the game; he came in and pitched a perfect eighth inning right after the Nats fell behind again. So, if that was the case, why wasn’t he called on to face Paulsen? If Treinen has one weakness, it’s left-handed hitting.
Instead, Matt Williams left Thornton on the bench when he should have had him on the mound. Thornton isn’t necessarily a lefty specialist, but his numbers against southpaws are certainly better than Treinen’s. What it really amounts to is the fact that Williams suddenly seemed unwilling to play the matchups.
That just makes the entire situation even more confusing. After all, Rivero was brought in with the sole purpose of facing Carlos Gonzalez. Why did the strategy suddenly change? Thornton was the best option; he should have gotten the call.
The only plausible reason behind Williams’ decision was that he wanted to keep some of his bullpen fresh in case the game went long. But what’s the point in doing that? If you can’t get it to extra innings (as the Nats found out last night), having a fresh bullpen doesn’t really matter.
It’s simply another case of Matt Williams mismanaging his bullpen. Too often this year, he’s exhibited questionable decision-making in crucial situations. There’s no real rhyme or reason behind his selection of pitchers. Managing with a lead is easy; anyone can throw in Janssen, Storen, and Papelbon for the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings when you’re ahead. It’s those decisions that are made when the team is behind or tied that make a manager a success or failure.
Far too often this season, Matt Williams has made the wrong decision, and if he continues to cost the Nationals games with his management of the pen, this failure will be on him.