- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2011

We like people who don’t think small. We encourage folks to not act small. We engage in small talk, though it’s largely insignificant.

Through no fault of its own, “small” is often viewed in a negative light. Especially in the macho world of sports. “Big” and “strong” are the cool twins that everyone wants on their team. Meanwhile, with one slot left and no other choice, you reluctantly take the small fry … who dislikes the term so much he sometimes wants to fight.

Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman heard fighting words when a writer referred to him as a “small-ball manager.” That produced a long, impassioned spiel from the normally mild-mannered skipper. You would’ve thought he was accused of having a small brain or some other body part.

“As this comes up, people try to make an issue of it and it’s a little irritating because nobody has ever asked me about it,” Riggleman said Wednesday, before a 2-1 victory against Philadelphia. “I understand it’s written about. But somebody who’s unenlightened about strategy of baseball chooses to put a label on you as a ‘small-ball manager’ and that’s just unfair. It’s ridiculous.”

I don’t blame Riggleman for resisting the label. Chicks dig the long ball and so do managers. It’s easier on the nerves to have a lineup replete with hitters who can tally three runs on one swing. Scratching and clawing to “generate” runs can be fun, but grows wearisome, especially when you’ve scored two or fewer runs in one-third of your games.

“I love that kind of baseball,” Riggleman said. “But I certainly love the home run, too.”

Despite their struggle to score (12th in the NL) and hit (15th) on a consistent basis, the Nats have displayed decent power. Led by rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa (10), Washington has 50 home runs, good for sixth in the league. And that’s with minimal contributions from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (one) and first baseman Adam LaRoche (three).

Catcher Pudge Rodriguez has spent most of his career in the American League, where the DH can make teams scoff at station-to-station baseball. He reached the postseason with Texas in 1996, 1998 and 1999, when the Rangers were the AL’s fourth-, second- and second-highest scoring team, respectively. But he still believes in bunting, hitting behind runners, hit-and-runs and the like.

“It doesn’t matter who you have on your team,” he said. “If you have big sluggers and also play smart and play fundamentals in all aspects of the game, you’re going to win a lot of games. When we’re on offense, we try to advance the runner as quick as possible into scoring position. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Maybe it’s the verb “manufacture” that makes the process sound cheap, like a team is creating imitation runs via bunts and sac flies.

“Runs are runs,” said outfielder Laynce Nix, arguably the Nats’ most productive hitter. “Whether it’s a three-run homer or whether you get two guys over and drive them in and hit a single. Scoring runs is the name of the game. I don’t think [manufacturing them] is a lesser thing.”

It’s not sexy, but it can be successful. San Diego was 12th in runs, 12th in homers and 15th in hits last year, but won 90 games and finished just two behind eventual World Series champion San Francisco.

“It’s a big ballpark, and we didn’t have a lot of pop in the lineup,” said the Nats’ Matt Stairs, a member of the 2010 Padres. “It depends on your ballpark and the type of team you have.

“We have a lot of power on this team, but when things don’t go well you have to do the little things and that’s how you play small ball. Right now, we’re trying to generate some runs and hopefully the offense will wake up.

Even the big boppers go small when it suits them. St. Louis and Colorado lead the NL in slugging percentage at .447 and .424, respectively. They also lead the league in bunts, with 32 and 30 (tied with Atlanta), respectively. Riggleman said players often bunt on their own, another reason he chafes at the small-ball label.

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