Saturday, April 2, 2011, 7:51 p.m.
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
Maybe it's a good thing the Washington Nationals don't have that silver Elvis wig lying around the clubhouse anymore, the one that would always go to whomever was deemed player of the game after a win last season. They would have had a difficult time figuring out who most deserved to wear the thing following Saturday's 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
The obvious choice would be Rick Ankiel, who both clubbed a two-run homer and dropped a perfect squeeze bunt. But Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman certainly each played a role, reaching base four times a piece. So did John Lannan, coming back after a 55-minute rain delay to toss a 1-2-3 fifth inning and help bridge the gap to the bullpen.
Don't forget about Tyler Clippard, who for the second time already this season entered in a tight spot and wriggled his way out of a jam. And then there's Sean Burnett, summoned to record a four-out save and finish off the Nationals' first victory of the young season.
In the end, maybe the real credit goes to manager Jim Riggleman, who deftly worked his way through a long and complicated ballgame, pulling all the strings and levers necessary to secure this win over a Braves team many have picked to win the NL East.
"It's a great ballclub they put out over there," Riggleman said. "We just really feel good the way we've played with them."
Indeed, you can't find too much to be upset about the way the Nationals have played during their first two games of 2011. They've gotten good pitching and superb defense while running the bases well. And after getting shut out 2-0 in Thursday's opener, they even managed to produce some clutch hits during Saturday's victory.
Dangerous as it is to draw significant conclusions only two games into a 162-game marathon, it does seem these Nationals are already carving out their identity. This is a team that's going to be significantly better at little things than previous versions, one that's going to be aggressive on the bases and try to eek out low-scoring wins behind pitching, defense and speed.
"We're playing fundamental baseball," Burnett said. "When you play fundamental baseball, you get to do the little things like squeezes and moving guys over and you're scoring runs. It's a very exciting, more energetic team. And athletic. If you just watch us play, the plays guys are making in the infield and outfield, it seems like nothing drops any more."
Behind it all is Riggleman, who often takes heat for what seems like over-managing but when presented with the right roster can be quite adept at utilizing all of his pieces.
He did just that Saturday, beginning with his decision to let Lannan return to the mound for the fifth inning after a 55-minute rain delay. It was one of those close calls, one that could have gone either way. Riggleman, though, was convinced Lannan (who tried to stay loose during the delay by snacking on a banana and protein bar, stretching and even playing catch in the batting tunnel) had one more inning in him.
"I was grateful to even get the chance to come back out," said the lefty, who looked a bit tired in the fifth but still retired the side to make himself eligible for the win.
One inning later, Riggleman was forced into making his first double-switch of the season, one that allowed Clippard to pitch two innings but required No. 5 hitter Michael Morse to come out of the game in favor of Laynce Nix. While that move surely left fans back home screaming at the TV, upset Morse was being pulled in the middle of a close game, it did ultimately work.
By the time Morse's spot came up in the seventh inning, Riggleman was able to send pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston to the plate to face George Sherrill. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez made the correct call in intentionally walking Hairston to bring Ankiel up to bat. (The outfielder is a career .231 hitter against lefties.)
Riggleman and Ankiel, though, had a surprise in store for the Braves. With the count 1-1, Ankiel got the sign to drop a squeeze bunt. Sherrill came
"I just kind of wanted to add one more run," said Riggleman, whose team led 4-2 at the time. "If we let him swing and he doesn't get it done, then I would have felt like I was getting a little selfish trying to put two or three on the board. If we could get one more, I felt real good about it."
Ankiel, a former pitcher, has bunted plenty of times in his career. But he couldn't remember ever being asked to squeeze a runner home. Fortunately, he was well-prepared when he got the sign.
"I feel like I've got a feel for the style of baseball we're trying to play," he said, further evidence of the identity the Nationals have already established.
Ankiel couldn't have executed the bunt any better, allowing Zimmerman to score without a throw and earning a hearty cheer from the crowd of 21,941.
Not that the game was over yet. When Drew Storen served up a solo homer to Alex Gonzalez in the eighth, the lead was back down to two runs. So Riggleman turned to Burnett, who along with Storen will form a two-man closing crew early this season. Burnett had only four career saves entering the day, and he wasn't informed beforehand he'd be getting the call to pitch in a situation mostly unfamiliar to him.
"A little more adrenaline, a little more rush," he said. "But at the same time, it all comes down to getting outs. And the good ones can control their emotions."
Burnett was in control throughout, recording four outs and snagging Chipper Jones' comebacker to end the game in dramatic fashion.
The Nationals gathered at the center of the diamond, exchanging high-fives. It was only the first of plenty of wins this season, but it was perhaps an example of what many more of those will look like.
If this team is going to take a major step forward in 2011, it's going to have to win games in this fashion, relying not on one player to produce the big hit but on just about everyone to contribute. And that can only be done if the manager knows how best to use all 25 of his players.
On this day, Riggleman did.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.