Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ian Desmond's perfect sac bunt keyed the Nats' 3-run eighth.
By the time Matt Capps struck out Corey Hart to end this one, Riggleman had used three different third basemen, two different first basemen, two different right fielders and every member of his bench not named Ivan Rodriguez. He asked one his best young hitters to lay down a sacrifice bunt, his All-Star slugger to serve as a decoy in the on-deck circle and his closer to record the final two outs one day after throwing 33 pitches.
This is what it's going to take for the Nationals, as currently constructed, to win ballgames. Riggleman understands this, so he's finding a way to use all 25 players at his disposal in a manner that maximizes every ounce of talent they've got.
"There's a lot of players on this team able to play a lot of positions, and able to do it well," Dunn said. "It gives Riggs so much leeway to make moves that a lot of managers don't get to make. Our team's deep, man."
This just in: There's more to the Nationals than Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn.
And because of the performances of a lot of other guys, the Nats will wake up Saturday morning a .500 ballclub. They've pulled off back-to-back comeback wins against the Phillies and Brewers. Don't look now, but they lead the National League in games won when trailing after seven innings.
"We know that we can go out there and play, and we're going to win some ballgames," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I think it might be surprising some other people. But from spring training, we've been saying this is our year. We're definitely going to sneak up on some people."
There were all kinds of clutch performances tonight, from John Lannan's seven innings of two-run ball to Josh Willingham's solo homer and diving catch in left field to Adam Kennedy's two-run, go-ahead single in the eighth. But perhaps the most important plate appearance of the game came from Desmond, who dropped the prettiest sacrifice bunt you'll ever see in advance of Kennedy's big hit.
It's called "small ball," and while there are plenty of new-school stat-heads who insist it's bad baseball, sometimes it's necessary to win games.
"That's what you're supposed to do, as a teammate, as a ballplayer: Get that down," Desmond said. "After the first pitch, I kind of went out of my zone a little bit. I said, 'Let's go, you need to get this bunt down.' I locked in and put it down."
Desmond's bunt put the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on second for Kennedy. It also allowed Riggleman to play a little chess match with Milwaukee manager Ken Macha. Macha could have elected to intentionally walk Kennedy and load the bases for the Nats' next hitter. But instead of Wil Nieves in the on-deck circle, there was Zimmerman with bat in hand.
Would Riggleman have actually sent Zim up there in that spot? Probably not, because the pitcher's spot was due up next, and Ivan Rodriguez was the only player left on his bench. He wasn't going to burn his backup catcher in the eighth inning of a game that easily could have gone deep into the night.
But Macha couldn't take that chance, so he pitched to Kennedy, who promptly drilled a two-run single just past Prince Fielder's glove down the first-base line.
"The threat of Zimmerman there helped Kennedy get pitched to," Riggleman said. "You'd like to have Ryan in the lineup all the time, but when you can pick a spot to use him, it can put a little pressure on the other club."
So now the Nats led 4-3, and when Nieves delivered an RBI single of his own, the lead was up to two runs, affording Sean Burnett and Capps some breathing room for the ninth inning. No matter, the duo retired the Brewers in order and finished off another well-played, well-managed game by the Nationals.
"To win at this level, you have to play complete games of baseball," Willingham said. "That means you have to get timely hitting, which we got tonight. We got great starting pitching. And our bullpen pitched great. We played good defense. If you don't do all those things pretty well every night, you're probably not going to win a major-league baseball game."
Guess what? The Nationals have won five of their last eight major-league baseball games, and they've essentially been forced to play the last five without their best player.
No worries. There's a lot more to this team than Zimmerman. And it helps when the guy moving all the chess pieces around knows how best to use them.
"It's a good group to manage," Riggleman said.