WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: Manager Jim Riggleman #5 of the Washington Nationals makes a pitching change against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning at Nationals Park on April 12, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Bottom of the eighth. 3-2 Nationals over Giants. Nats' reliever Tyler Clippard, who'd retired the Giants in order in the seventh, comes back for eighth out to face San Francisco catcher Buster Posey and issues a leadoff walk. Pinch runner Darren Ford replaces Posey on the basepaths, and gets thrown out trying for second by Pudge Rodriguez. Pat Burrell goes down swinging. Two down. Nats' left-hander Sean Burnett's called upon to face left-hander Aubrey Huff a night after the Nats' Skipper had walked the Giants' light-hitting backup backstop Eli Whiteside to bring Huff up against left-hander John Lannan, setting up a bases-loaded situation in which the winning run was forced in by a walk...
Burnett gets a sharp grounder from Huff for the final out of the frame on Sunday, and in the bottom of the inning the Nationals add two runs on a two-out, two-run single by Pudge. 5-2 D.C. Miguel Tejada and then two left-handers, Mike Fontenot and Nate Schierholz, are due up...So...Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman, who's talked before about making his decision on who'll pitch the ninth being based mostly on matchups, is likely to stick with lefty Sean Burnett...right?
When the ninth starts it's right-hander Drew Storen on the mound. The 23-year-old right-hander, drafted out of Stanford with the Nats' second 1st Round pick in 2010 specifically to fill this role, comes on, and after Tejada flies out, the first lefty, Mike Fontenot, doubles to right in front of Schierholtz, who flies to center, and pinch hitter Cody Ross, who grounds to third. Ballgame. Asked in the post game press conference about the decision to go with Storen, Riggleman said, "What I really would like to do is see how the whole thing unfolds. A lot is going to depend on who's coming up and all that, but the lead that you have, how much [of a] margin you have, if you're in the ninth looking for someone to close it down, is it one or three like today, that changes things a little bit."
"The one thing with Drew is..." Riggleman continued, "we would, like I think everybody in the community wants, Drew to be the closer and I want that, but he's 23-24-years-old and I don't want him to run out there four days in a row and sometimes even three days in a row, depending on what the pitches are, you know, I want to preserve him a little bit, so I always have to have the option of Burnett and Clippard doing that. The more comfortable I get that we're going to turn it over to Drew then it gives me the option to use [Burnett] earlier in the game like in the seventh or something to get us out of trouble against some tough parts of the lineup. So, for me, the 'W' is more important than the 'S' in the box score, and we just want to try to get the win and whoever pitches that last out...Clipp's outs were huge today. Burnie's out was huge. Storen threw the ball great, but there will be an 'S' by Storen's name and there won't by the other guy's names, you know."
Pressed on the issue, the Nationals' Manager further explained that his decision to go with Storen by first asking rhetorically, "Why did I do it today? I just felt like that's what I wanted to do, you know?" Saturday night, when pressed for an explanation as to why he'd had Lannan walk Eli Whiteside, who has a career .155/.197/.207 line against LHP in favor of Huff and his (.275/.328/.429) slash line against lefties, Riggleman had responded that, "That was one of those ones where, the right thing probably to do was bring [Tyler] Clippard in to face Whiteside," Riggleman explained, "and every now and then you make a decision for your starting pitcher. If I pull John there, he's got a no decision or a loss. If I let him try to work through it, he's got a no-decision or a win...and it didn't work. The right decision to make was to just bring Clippard in and that's the end of that. Whether Clippard gets him or not, that's the way we go with that. I should have done that, that one's on me."
This is, after all, the same Jim Riggleman whose "Smartball" ads touted the fact that, (as SI.com's Joe Posnanski summarized in an article entitled, "Chinese Jibberish"), "He likes to stick with his players (a noble quality, I think). And he likes to go with his gut sometimes as a manager." But can you win on a consistent basis going with your gut over what's statistically more likely to succeed. Do you continue to bunt runners from first to second with no one out as Riggleman often does, when, as Mr. Posnanski wrote:
"...for more than 100 years, more runs have scored with a man on first and nobody out than with a man on second and one out. This has been true EVERY SINGLE SEASON for more than 100 years. Every single one."
Can you look at Riggleman's 637-801 career record as a manager and conclude that his approach fails to lead to wins more often that not? Of course you have to ask, what sort of talent did he have to work with? In his second full season D.C. he's gotten an already-injury plagued and offensively challenged Nats' roster out to a 13-14 record through the first month of the season, but last year's team started 20-15 before a nose-dive resulted in the team finishing 69-93. The scenarios mentioned above are just two of thousands he'll be asked to make throughout the course of the season. Sometimes he'll go with the numbers, other times he'll go with his gut.
The Nats' Skipper is signed through the end of this season, he wasn't extended this winter, and hasn't been yet. Jim Riggleman's going with his gut and hoping he makes the right choices. When he makes the wrong one, he's willing to admit it, a truly admirable quality. When the season ends, Jim Riggleman's gut may be responsible for deciding if he's the manager who'll lead the team into the 2012-13 seasons when the Nats think they'll be ready to compete.
How confident are you in Jim Riggleman and the direction the Nats are being led?