Matt Stairs’ walk-off single gives Davey Johnson first Nationals win

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Before his first home game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, manager Davey Johnson spent some time reflecting on his fond memories of the Washington, D.C. area.

“It’s great being home,” he said. “I can recall being here and Frank Howard hitting it over every wall out there. He hit Dave McNally like he owned him, almost killed Brooks Robinson one time if he [hadn’t gotten] his glove up for a line drive. I had a lot of fun memories coming here.”

Johnson will certainly add Friday’s District debut to the list.

The 68-year-old skipper made a few key decisions in the game’s final innings to squeak out a 2-1 win. Pinch-hitter Matt Stairs came through with a walk-off single that bounced off the right-centerfield wall, bringing pinch-runner Alex Cora home.

“First of all, happy Canada Day,” Stairs, the Canadian native, joked after the win. “I came in today and we did a lot of work on some stuff. I stepped into the batter’s box and took a terrible swing on the first swing and made an adjustment on the second one.”

Before the game, Johnson mentioned Stairs specifically and said that they needed his bat late in games. Stairs also said that Johnson pulled him aside before the game and spoke to him about taking a “less is more” approach. The left-handed hitter was batting .132 entering Friday night’s game.

“I did nothing today,” Stairs explained. “After batting practice, I didn’t swing, I didn’t go in the cage and work on things; I just kept it easy, nice and relaxed. I don’t even think I took a swing on deck to tell you the truth.”

For Johnson, the result solidifies his philosophy as a manager: show confidence in your players, and watch that confidence spread.

“If you show confidence in them, they start having more confidence,” the skipper said of his roster. “I think he [Stairs] can hit falling out of bed, but that’s the kind of situation that turns him on. One out, a runner on third — he’s the guy I’d like up there. I don’t care if he’s hitting .080.”

Michael Morse initially set up the game-winning hit with a leadoff single to start the bottom of the ninth. After advancing to second on a wild pitch, the Pirates decided to walk Danny Espinosa and bring up Wilson Ramos. Johnson made another key change at this point, inserting Cora into the game as a pinch-runner for Morse.

“I was rolling the dice there,” Johnson admitted, understanding that taking Morse’s big bat out of the lineup may end up hurting them if the game went to extras.

But as Ramos slapped a long fly ball to right, Cora tagged at second and advanced to third with only one out. Cora’s base running helped ease Stairs, who knew that even a well-hit sacrifice fly would win the game.

Lost among the ninth-inning drama was Tom Gorzelanny’s terrific start. He surrendered six hits over seven innings and struck out eight, including four with runners in scoring position. The southpaw left the game without letting in an earned run for the first time since May 2.

“He won the game for us [by] giving us that quality start,” Johnson said.

Despite superb pitching from both sides, at the end of the day, Johnson’s ninth-inning tactics were the difference.

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