WASHINGTON — One week ago, Matt Williams came under heavy fire from fans and media for his management of the Nationals bullpen in the Cardinals series.
Critics were particularly critical of how Williams had handled the bullpen in the late innings of consecutive losing efforts, after the Nationals blew leads late in both games, and Williams had chosen to go with Casey Janssen in the highest leverage situations rather than calling for closer Jonathan Papelbon who is conditioned to pitch in high-pressure situations.
General Manager and President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo drew his own heat for defending his manager by saying Williams had done a “masterful job” managing the pen in the latter innings of that second loss.
There are certainly obvious reasons for Rizzo to defend his manager, beyond the simple fact that he’s a GM defending his manager. Williams was hand-picked by Rizzo to shepherd this club after it had missed the postseason under Davey Johnson in 2013.
In a pivotal division game against the Mets on Tuesday, the Nationals relinquished their stranglehold of the game in the seventh inning after Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero and Drew Storen combined to allow six runs on three hits and six walks.
The Mets took an 8-7 lead after Kirk Nieuwenhuis tagged Jonathan Papelbon with a solo home run in the eighth inning. The Nationals then failed to score in the bottom of the eighth and ninth innings, the latter of which Williams decided to have Anthony Rendon sacrifice bunt on a 3-1 count in an attempt to move Jayson Werth into scoring position.
Counter logic would say Williams could have had Rendon — one of the Nats’ best hitters — swing away without sacrificing an out, although, to be sure, that would be more of a gamble.
Rizzo wasn’t in such a rush to defend Williams’ decision during his weekly radio appearance the following afternoon, when asked if he was okay with Williams calling for a bunt.
“The manager’s got a million decisions that they make and they make decisions throughout the ballgame,” Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier. “He felt that with [Jeurys] Familia being a ground-ball pitcher, that he was better served to use the sacrifice there to get a runner in scoring position and that’s what he went with. It comes down to the manager’s decision on what his gut feel says, and his gut feel said for him to bunt.”
“I’m on the second floor in the GM box, so it’s something that we discuss the strategies before and we discuss after each and every game,” he said. “We’ll talk about it now, but those discussions will stay between us. We’re always in communication and we talk about things each and every day, and before and after games, and that’s how we’re going to keep it.”
Rizzo revealing he discusses strategy with his manager can either be a comforting thought to fans, or a troubling one, as the GM is either working to improve Williams’ game strategy — assuming his strategy needs improving, of course — or agreeing with it.
Rouhier asked Rizzo whether those strategy talks touch on specific situations which have occurred in Nationals games.
“Oh, definitely. I’ve had them with, it goes back to Davey Johnson, and with Matt,” Rizzo said. “We talk baseball. We talk about the game. We kind of dissect the game each and every day. We debate. We argue. We agree. It’s between Matt and I, Matt and I and the staff, and we all sit in the conference room before each game and after each game, and we’re in constant communication and we’re constantly discussing strategies, and what we did right and what we did wrong in each and every game.
Paulsen asked Rizzo to say, without getting into specifics, if Tuesday’s post-game strategy chat focused on the decision to bunt in the ninth, or if it was more of a normal conversation.
“It’s a normal conversation,” Rizzo said. ” We dissected the game and mostly went over the seventh inning and tried to dissect what was wrong with the relief corps; with a six-run lead, we couldn’t throw enough strikes to get out of the inning with the lead. And that was really the crux of the conversation last night, was about that.”
The Nationals are now six games back from the Mets in the NL East with 24 to play.