The Washington Nationals won the National League East division title going away without a .300 hitter, a 15-game winner, a 25-home run hitter or a 100-RBI man. They won it with a rookie manager who lost his biggest bats in the opening weeks of the season, and has been without one of the team’s best players for much of the year.
They won the NL East because of a group of Mike Rizzo moments that added up to the 2014 Nationals.
There was the moment when he decided to hand over this team — predicted by many to be right where it is now — to Matt Williams, who had never managed a major league baseball game.
That moment was an honest one when Williams showed Rizzo he didn’t think he had all the answers.
“I knew the man for a long time,” Rizzo said. “Since 1999, I was around him when we were both with the Arizona Diamondbacks. When he interviewed for the job, he was terrific. He was confident but not cocky. He was articulate, communicative, a no-nonsense guy with a sense of humor, a well-rounded candidate.
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“The biggest thing was that he knew he didn’t know everything. It was refreshing. He knew he was going to have to lean on a veteran coaching staff. He was open minded and willing to take different ideas from different people. He realized he didn’t have all the answers, and when he didn’t have the answers, he would go find them. It really was an organizational hire … a lot of these were organization decisions.”
Matt Williams is now a leading candidate for NL Manager of the Year.
There was the moment when he managed to talk Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski into trading starting pitcher Doug Fister for minor league pitching prospect Robbie Ray, left-handed reliever Ian Krol and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi.
“We were talking to Detroit about other players,” Rizzo said. “We talked a lot about [American League Cy Young winner] Max Scherzer. Dombrowski knew about my relationship with Scherzer (Rizzo had drafted Scherzer for Arizona before he came to Washington in 2006). He knew we were interested in him. When we found out Max wasn’t available, we went to Doug, and they were more open-minded about moving Doug. The strategy to switch over from Scherzer to Fister was the moment you could get a deal done.”
Doug Fister went 14-6 with a 2.55 ERA for Washington, and arguably has been the team’s best and most consistent starter.
There was the moment when at the end of spring training, with the roster nearly set, the Philadelphia Phillies released Kevin Frandsen.
“I wanted him two years earlier,” Rizzo said. “Every year we tried to make a trade for him, but they [Philadelphia] were always reluctant to move him. When we saw he was available, we moved on him. He was a great fit for us character-wise, and a really tough out. He’s a grinder.”
On a bench that struggled at times this year, the one constant has been Frandsen. He batted a solid .258 in 98 games, but more importantly filled in all over the field — the outfield, first base, second base and third base. And he has been a spark on a laid-back team.
There was the moment in July 2010, when Rizzo was trying to dig out of the grave Jim Bowden had dug for this franchise, when he traded Cristian Guzman to the Texas Rangers for two little-known minor league pitchers named Ryan Tatusko and Tanner Roark — a 25th-round pick in the 2008 draft.
“Every trade you make is important — even the minor ones,” Rizzo said. “We were out of it, looking to acquire prospects. We were going younger with Ian Desmond, and looking to move Guzman and his money to Texas, who was in the playoff hunt. When we saw they were interested, we started looking at their prospects in the scouting database. We leaned on our scouts for help, and one of them, Jay Robertson, had come from Texas and knew Roark. I had seen Roark pitch as an amateur and knew him too.
“As you go through names, you whittle your way down to a deal that works for both sides,” Rizzo said. “I thought we got two controllable pitchers, and I thought with what our organization does with pitchers, they would be good prospects. Tanner worked his way through some things, and our pitching people did a marvelous job with him.”
Rizzo said as they brought Roark through the system and called him up last year, he asked Spin Williams (the minor league pitching coordinator) how Roark would do “with a second deck on the stadium” — the language for how he would fare in the major leagues. “He said, ‘Riz, I can’t guarantee performance, but he won’t be afraid,’” Rizzo said.
Tanner Roark was 14-10 this season with a 2.85 ERA in 30 starts for the Nationals.
There were many other Rizzo moments — he prefers organizational decisions — that led to the division title. One of them that may resonate throughout the postseason is the moment he told Stephen Strasburg in 2012 that, recovering from Tommy John surgery, that he would not be pitching past 160 innings — no matter what.
This season, Stephen Strasburg has pitched 202 innings — and will take the ball in the postseason, most likely in Game 1.
Mike Rizzo moments — championship moments.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.