Handing out credit after Friday night's dramatic 5-2 extra-inning victory over the Braves should seem like a pretty simple task. After all, it was Matt den Dekker and Michael Taylor that came through in crucial late-game at-bats to seal a critical Nationals win to lower the NL East deficit to five games.
But there may have been another hero on this night, and an unlikely one at that: Matt Williams.
That's right, the Nats' embattled skipper, who 72 hours earlier faced heavy criticism for a few questionable in-game tactical maneuvers, seemed to push all the right buttons Friday night that helped give his club a chance to pull off the victory. With every move he made, it appeared as though Williams was directly responding to his detractors who say he too often goes "by the book" in certain situations and that he lacks in-game feel.
It all started with the bases loaded in the fifth inning of a 1-1 game. With Tanner Roark on the mound having thrown just 69 pitches, Williams went to the bullpen early and brought in Matt Thornton, who has typically been used as a situational lefty later in games. The 38-year-old retired both A.J. Pierzynski and Adonis Garcia to end the Atlanta rally.
"Yeah, [he] nailed it today," Thornton said of his manager. "We gotta find a way to win ballgames. We’re chasing and we don’t have a whole lot of time left, so every game matters, every situation matters. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first or the eighth. You’ve got to be ready to go at all times."
"We know that Tanner's limited [with pitch count]," Williams added. "We knew going in that it's going to be into the bullpen fairly early. It was good matchups for Thorny there to come in and get those outs. You've got Pierzynski and then the righty as well. He did a nice job."
Williams has caught the most flack in recent weeks for being too rigid in how he's handled the bullpen -- specifically how he's used closer Jonathan Papelbon, opting to go to him almost exclusively when the Nats have the lead in the ninth inning. But after the Braves took a 2-1 lead in the eighth, he managed with the urgency that many claimed he didn't have. He called upon his ace reliever to work the ninth by double switching for him and the aforementioned den Dekker. Both moves paid off immediately; Papelbon pitched two scoreless frames (the first time he's pitched more than one inning since joining the Nats) that were sandwiched between den Dekker's crucial two-out game-tying single.
"Matt just makes the decision and I follow him," said Papelbon, who earned his first-ever win since being traded to Washington. "He's skip. I've always told him 'I'm good to go. You throw me when you need me. No need to ask me any day.'"
As an experienced closer, Papelbon is no stranger to having to get more than three outs to finish off a game. Including his time in Philly, Friday night marked his third outing of two innings this season. And since 2012, he's had such eight appearances.
"[Papelbon]'s a gamer," Thornton said. "He’s going to take the ball. It doesn’t matter if we’re losing by two and they want him to pitch, he’s going to go. Or throw two innings. He’s going to be ready to go at any time right now. He’s just like the rest of us out there, and ready to take the ball anytime they need us to."
Of course, Williams saved the best for last, calling on Taylor (whose bruised knee kept him from starting) with two men on to seal the victory in the 10th with a dramatic three-run home run.
With his club in the middle of a pennant race and each game being bigger than the last one, is this how the skipper will handle things moving forward? Time will tell. But for one night, the oft-criticized Williams made all the right moves.
"A lot of decisions that had to be made tonight," Papelbon said, "and I think most of the decisions that he made, they pulled through."