Down in the batting cage in the bowels of Nationals Park, Ivan Rodriguez had just begun to settle in Saturday night. He’d taken exactly five swings during the bottom of the eighth inning when he popped his head back into the dugout and manager Davey Johnson told him that his practice session was over.
“You’re on deck,” Johnson told the veteran catcher who’d already caught nine innings in the Nationals’ 5-3 loss in Game 1 of their doubleheader with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I didn’t want him up there when he was playing against me,” Johnson said. “So even though I was burning our last catcher, I wanted the matchup to be in our favor. I just had a good feeling about Pudge.”
A game the Nationals would win 4-3 for the doubleheader split had changed so much since Rodriguez had made his way down to the cage, the Nationals trailing by a run, in preparation for a pinch-hit opportunity.
Michael Morse reached base after being hit by a pitch in the left forearm to begin the inning. Pinch-runner Brian Bixler then moved to second base on Rick Ankiel’s walk. In the ensuing at bat, Ankiel and Bixler executed a double steal so perfectly that Bixler scored the game’s tying run when Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison couldn’t handle the throw from catcher Eric Fryer.
“That’s just my role,” the soft-spoken Bixler said with a shrug after the game. “Just try to make something happen. Fortunately, it was in the dirt, he threw it away and I scored.”
With two men on in a tie ballgame, Rodriguez got into an 0-2 count, then fouled off two straight fastballs from reliever Tony Watson. He sent the fifth pitch he saw into right field to bring Ankiel home with the game-winning run. It was the Nationals’ first RBI of the night that was scored a hit and made it out of the infield. It was also Rodriguez’s 17th career pinch-hit RBI.
“I love to win,” Rodriguez said. “This is a family team and whoever gets the opportunity to go out there and win one for the team is all that matters.”
The Nationals scored four runs on five hits — with only two of those hits going for extra bases. John Lannan allowed three runs in seven innings, keeping the Nats in the game.
“It was terrible,” Johnson said when asked about his team’s offensive output. “We had to score on ground balls in the infield, break up double plays, we didn’t really drive anybody except for Pudge.
“I know it’s going to get better, I’m optimistic [but] I love to score runs. I’m kind of an offensive manager and I’m having to open up a new playbook and it’s not what I like to have to steal and hope they throw it away and get a run across. … That’s not my three-run home run style of play. We certainly are capable so I’ve just got to be patient and optimistic.”
With the win, the Nationals reached the .500 mark for the season (42-42) and improved their record to 15-15 in one-run games this season. Earlier this year, Washington was 5-11 in one-run games.
“I like some of the things that happened today,” Johnson said. “Even though we only got five hits. I still like the look of [the lineup]. Did it look good? It didn’t perform good, but it looked good.”
“That just shows you the difference between these teams and teams of the past,” Lannan said. “We don’t give up, even though our hitting’s not where we want it to be. Guys are coming up with those pinch hits, and getting on base, drawing walks and getting the job done just enough. We’ve got to just keep on battling.”