A few weeks back, with the Washington Nationals then last in the National League across the line in batting average, on base percentage percentage, slugging and the NL East standings, Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman was asked about any potential changes the team might make. "I don't think we have any internal options offensively right now to change anything up," the Nationals' manager told reporters, as quoted in MLB.com's Bill Ladson's article on the loss entitled, "Nats to stand pat without Minors reinforcements." "We feel confident that the team we put together here is going to get it going," Riggleman continued, and in responding to a similar line of questioning on MASN's post game broadcast, he elaborated on how he approached the rough times the team was then experiencing:
"This is our ballclub. This is what we put together. This is what we have confidence in, and we've got to turn it around."
The confidence Jim Riggleman expresses in the Nats' roster as a whole extends to each individual player's ability to succeed. In the top of the eighth of Saturday afternoon's game against the Padres, after Jerry Hairston had doubled to the wall to lead off the inning with the Nationals down 2-1 at the time, Riggleman brought on professional pinch hitter Matt Stairs. To say that Stairs, MLB's all-time pinch hit HR leader, was struggling at the plate this season would be an understatement. The 43-year-old left-handed bench bat stepped up to the plate with a .097/.263/.109 slash, one hit and one walk in his last thirteen plate appearances and three hits and seven walks in 40 plate appearances on the season overall.
Stairs took two strikes from Padres' reliever Mike Adams, then flew out to left-center. Rick Ankiel and Ian Desmond both followed with K's, Ankiel swinging and Desmond looking, and the Nationals stranded Hairston at second with San Diego still up by a run in a game the Padres eventually won. Asked in the post game press conference if he'd considered having Stairs bunt to move Hairston to third, Riggleman responded that he, "...felt like with Matt [Stairs] up there that we could do both, we could pull a ground ball and get [Hairston] over to third which would accomplish as much as a bunt would, but we might drive one into the gap, so I was confident that Matt [Stairs] would get it done there, and [Mike] Adams painted him pretty good to get 0-2 and then threw a little bit softer pitch to get the pop-up, but my thinking was basically we're going to tie it with Matt or win it with Matt, and if we don't we've got [Ankiel] up there who I had confidence would get him in from third or get a hit, so I could've bunted him over with somebody, but I felt very confident that we'd get that runner over to third."
Sunday afternoon with the game tied at 4-4 in the eighth, a similar situation presented itself. With Nats' right fielder Jayson Werth on second after a reaching safely on a "Baltimore chop" toward third and taking the extra base on a throwing error by the Padres' pitcher, Laynce NIx, who entered the game with a .306/.339/.568 slash line, eight doubles and seven HR's on the season, stepped to the plate. Nix wasn't asked to bunt, and he grounded back to the mound on a fastball from San Diego right-hander Luke Gregerson. The Padres reliever walked Mike Morse and popped up Nats' catcher Wilson Ramos. Two on, two out. Jayson Werth still at second. Riggleman turned to Matt Stairs again.
The left-handed bench bat tore into a first-pitch fastball from Gregerson, but the BABIP gods aren't shining on Stairs, as the line drive went right to right fielder Chris Denorfia. Still tied at 4-4, Werth stranded at second, and the Nationals go on to lose the game in the top of the ninth...
"You know, you have a left-handed hitter," Riggleman said when asked if he'd considered bunting Werth over. "We kind of had this with Matt [Stairs] the other day. You've got a man on second, nobody out, your left-handed hitter you feel is going to pull the ball and move him over without a bunt, and at the same time is a guy that might drive one in the gap for you, both Matt and Laynce, so, you know, I had total confidence that Laynce would get a base hit, who knows...maybe hit one out of the park or hit a ground ball to the right side, whatever happens, but he made a great effort, gave us a great at bat, but hit it back to the pitcher."
Was Riggleman's confidence in Stairs Saturday night justified? Based on his resume you'd say yes, based on what he's been able to do this season though? Believing in Laynce Nix's ability to advance the runner with a groundout or score him with a gapper or home seems more reasonable. In spite of Stairs' struggles and the Nats' issues scoring runs as a team, the Nats' Skipper abandoned the small ball or "smart ball" approach that he's openly promoted, opting to rely on his player's ability to come through with a clutch hit. Neither hitter succeeded, but given the circumstances can you argue with the manager's decisions? Either way, Riggleman's confidence in his players like Stairs, and the roster the Nats are putting out there, is admirable, but after seeing what Stairs has done this season and with the Nats now 22-30 and spiraling down, is his confidence justified?