PITTSBURGH — They'd given themselves scoring opportunities all afternoon, but with a lineup that continues to sputter along through the season's first month-plus, the Nationals had to resort to their bag of tricks to produce the game-winning run in Saturday's 5-4 squeaker over the Pirates.
A double steal? In the top of the ninth inning? Of a tie game? With Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche on the basepaths?
"I would have thought those were the last two guys who were going to steal," said Tyler Moore, who was standing at the plate at the time and had no advance knowledge what was about to happen.
Hey, whatever it takes to manufacture a run. After Zimmerman and LaRoche shocked all 29,975 people inside PNC Park — most notably Pittsburgh reliever Tony Watson — Moore delivered the sacrifice fly that brought Zimmerman home and gave the Nationals a much-needed victory on a day in which Stephen Strasburg was better but still not at his best.
Inside an elated visitors clubhouse afterward, it hardly mattered that Strasburg gave up four runs in seven innings or that the Nationals went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Nope, some five hours after Davey Johnson gathered his troops for a rare team meeting in which he urged them not to put so much pressure on themselves, they heeded their manager's advice and did all the little things necessary to eke out a one-run win.
"Meeting of the year," shortstop Ian Desmond joked. "That's how you get Manager of the Year, right there."
It also helps when you study the opposition well enough to know the right time to call a surprise double steal with two of your slowest runners on base.
The Nationals knew Watson, on the mound in the ninth for the Pirates, was especially slow to the plate out of the stretch, averaging 1.8 seconds to deliver his pitches. So with Zimmerman (who had been plunked in the left shin by Watson moments earlier) on second base and LaRoche (who had singled to right immediately after) on first base with one out in a tie game, Johnson conveyed to third base coach Trent Jewett that Zimmerman had the green light to steal third if he wanted.
Zimmerman picked the right moment to take off — Watson had looked back to second base on the first two pitches of the at-bat but then never looked back on his 1-1 offering to Moore — and wound up sliding into third without so much as drawing a throw from Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin.
"We know who has what times, what guys are slow and what guys are fast, what guys people like me actually have a chance to steal bases on," Zimmerman said, later adding: "I mean, no matter who you are, if that guy gives you a leg kick like that and is almost two seconds to the plate, you should be able to steal a base."
Zimmerman claimed it's actually easier for him to steal third base than second base, though the record shows he'd never successfully done it in his career until Saturday. Only three previous times, all in 2006, had he tried to steal third, and each time he'd been thrown out.
LaRoche, meanwhile, only had six stolen bases (and 16 attempts) in 1,213 career major-league games, two of them coming on double steals.
"I definitely wasn't expecting those two guys to double-steal off me," Watson said. "That's what good players do. They catch you sleeping and make you pay for it."
Successful or not, the double steal would have been a footnote had Moore not been able to drive in the winning run after the surprise baserunning play. The second-year slugger had already had all kinds of trouble doing just that in this game, striking out with the bases loaded in both the sixth and seventh innings.
Knowing all he needed to do now was make contact to drive in the run, Moore made a conscious effort to remind himself to cut down on his swing.
"Oh, yeah. But I was trying to do that in the other at-bats, too," he said. "Sometimes that doesn't work, and you just try to keep it positive in your head, because so many things are going. It was rough day, and it ended up being fine. Coming out with a win is the biggest thing."
Moore's frustrating day wound up ending on a high note because he was able to loft Watson's 1-2 pitch to right field, deep enough to score Zimmerman and give the Nationals a hard-earned, 5-4 lead they held on to when Rafael Soriano pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth for his 10th save.
And so the Nationals improved to 3-0 when Johnson holds a team meeting (or, at least, pretends to hold one). He did it exactly one year ago in this same ballpark, with Strasburg striking out 13 en route to a 4-2 win. And he held a fake meeting (making reporters think he had chewed out his players when he actually didn't) August 29 in Miami, producing an 8-4 victory and a streak of eight wins in nine days.
Considering Johnson's impressive track record when summoning his players together behind closed doors, someone in the Nationals clubhouse wondered after this one whether another meeting is in store Sunday morning.
"Same time tomorrow," Jordan Zimmermann asked him.
Replied Johnson: "You can forget it."