In Nationals win over Philadelphia, questions arise at closer

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PHILADELPHIA — The Washington Nationals won Monday night. They beat their division rival Philadelphia Phillies 2-1 on a misty, occasionally rainy, night at Citizens Bank Park. They got six nearly unhittable innings from left-hander Gio Gonzalez and all the runs they’d need off the bat of Ian Desmond.

But sitting stonefaced in their dugout with one out in the ninth inning was Henry Rodriguez. He was no longer on the mound, that spot taken by Sean Burnett, the left-hander who’d been summoned to bail out the Nationals’ flamethrowing closer for the second time in his last three save opportunities. 

In a debacle of a ninth inning, Rodriguez faced three batters. He threw two actual wild pitches and several others that went to the backstop with no runners on base as he walked leadoff man John Mayberry Jr. He got one out. When he uncorked his second wild pitch of the ninth — and major league-leading eighth in 18 innings — to pinch hitter Ty Wigginton with runners on the corners, Nationals manager Davey Johnson had seen enough. 

The Nationals won Monday night. But in doing so they got another reminder of how unsettled the end of the game is for them with Drew Storen sidelined until close to the All-Star break. 

Rodriguez, a hard-thrower with a penchant for wildness, is inexperienced in the role and lately, he’s struggled. Burnett, who said his plan was to “just try to get two more outs before they get two runs,” saved the game. The entire sequence left the Nationals’ closer position in a state of flux. 

“I’m going to sleep on it,” Johnson said. “But I’m looking at alternatives.”

With Brad Lidge joining the Storen on the disabled list until at least mid-June, Johnson’s options that include experience closing are minimal. Of the Nationals’ current group of relievers, only Sean Burnett has recorded more than two saves in his career. Even All-Star set-up man Tyler Clippard, whom the team is reluctant to remove from his eighth inning role because of his extreme value there, has just one career save.  

“I have confidence in everybody out there so there’s a lot of alternatives,” Johnson said. “It may be just by committee and who’s rested at the time goes ahead and pitches the ninth instead of the eighth.” 

Rodriguez left Citizens Bank Park before reporters entered the clubhouse, leaving more of the good from Monday night to focus on instead of the tumultuous final frame. 

There was Gonzalez, now the major league leader in strikeouts with 69, throwing far more pitches than he or his manager would have liked but doing so in dominant fashion against the Phillies’ unfamiliar lineup and allowing just three hits and two walks to go along with nine strikeouts. 

There was Desmond, explaining the power that has given him seven home runs this season and a .473 slugging percentage as “daddy strength,” and thanking his one-year-old son, Grayson, after he knocked in both Nationals runs with a solo home run in the second and an RBI-single in the fourth.

There was Craig Stammen, arguably the best reliever the Nationals have had this season, pitching two more scoreless innings to drop his ERA to 1.44 and throwing so well he had Johnson lamenting not allowing him to try for a third and pitch the ninth.

And there was superb defense from the Nationals all night long. From Adam LaRoche’s tough backhand stop and throw home to save a run in the sixth, to Rick Ankiel’s diving catch to save another run that same inning, and an impressive inning-ending double play by Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and LaRoche in the fourth.

“You want to beat Philly,” Burnett said, his ERA leading the Nationals’ staff at 0.71. “It’s just a big game for us.” 

A big game that distanced them one further ahead of the reigning National League East division champions. The Nationals improved to 25-17 and returned to a half-game behind Atlanta in the standings while Philadelphia fell to 21-22. Washington didn’t win its 25th game in 2011 until June 2.

They left the park late Monday night with more questions. Who would close Tuesday if the situation presented itself the most prevalent. But they still left with a win. 

“The outcome was good,” Johnson said. “But getting to the outcome wasn’t that easy.”

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About the Author
Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.

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