- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

NEW YORK — Nationals manager Matt Williams crammed a season’s worth of experiences into one wild game when his team opened 2014 with a 9-7 victory over the New York Mets on Monday.

“I have a stomach ache right now,” Williams joked afterward. “Which is probably pretty normal.”

It’s also probably for the best that Tuesday was a scheduled day off in this three-game series in New York. Williams could use the extra sleep to savor his first victory as a big league manager.

Within an inning on Monday afternoon at Citi Field, Williams watched in dismay as trainers rushed out to check on outfielder Bryce Harper, who slid hard into second base to break up a double play only to take Eric Young’s knee to the side of his head. Harper walked off the field slowly before passing a concussion test between innings and returning to the game.

The day was only just beginning, though, so any sigh of relief was temporary. By the end, Williams would be down his starting catcher and new cleanup hitter, he would trust an unheralded rookie relief pitcher in the ninth inning of a tie game and he would take his star third baseman out of the game to keep the emergency, emergency catcher in it.

There was a replay challenge — he lost — and a pinch hitter, Kevin Frandsen, who was announced into the game in the seventh inning and never actually used. Instead, Nate McLouth hit for pitcher Stephen Strasburg when Mets starter Dillon Gee was pulled from the game.

“Lots of stuff,” Williams said. “That’s good. Right in the thick of it. That was fun.”

But he could do without 161 more games of that. Washington trailed 3-0, 4-2 and 5-4 before rallying for the win. Even then New York scored two runs in the bottom of the 10th off reliever Jerry Blevins. Through it all, his players said, Williams maintained his calm as best he could, going over potential moves with his coaching staff, including bench coach Randy Knorr.

“Maybe that’s a good sign, I guess,” outfielder Denard Span said. “But I wasn’t really paying attention to his demeanor.”

Starting catcher Wilson Ramos, batting cleanup in a surprise move, left the game in the bottom of the seventh inning with a hand injury. That started a chain reaction. Jose Lobaton came in as the new catcher and that left reserve infielder Danny Espinosa as the emergency catcher, as Frandsen already had been used. Williams finally had to make a difficult call when it came time to use Espinosa as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning.

In a 4-4 game he sent Espinosa to the plate, where he drew a key walk that set up Span’s game-tying double. But Williams couldn’t waste Espinosa, either. What if Lobaton got hurt, too? So he took out Zimmerman, one of his best bats and an excellent fielder, switched Anthony Rendon to third base and put Espinosa at second base in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s also when Williams turned to Aaron Barrett, a relief pitcher who was a long shot to make the roster entering spring training. He made his big-league debut in a tie game on the road and recorded three consecutive outs. It took some confidence from his manager to go that route when his closer, Rafael Soriano, was still available in the bullpen, though also dealing with an illness.

“That definitely helps,” Barrett said. “In that type of ballgame, to come into that situation, especially for my debut, gives me a lot of confidence.”

Williams had one more chore in the top of the 10th. Even after Rendon’s three-run homer put the capper on a four-run inning, the manager challenged the Espinosa groundout that ended the frame. The Nats were by then ahead 9-5 and Williams didn’t feel comfortable asking for a replay on what appeared an inconsequential play. It was a bit like rubbing it in.

But saving an out still matters. So he asked the umpires for a review before the play was upheld. It was just one more oddity on a day full of them. For Williams, the adjustment period will last a lot longer than just Opening Day. There are more lessons to come.

“I just wanted to play the game and take advantage of a situation if we could,” Williams said. “I don’t think that’ll change.”

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