WASHINGTON -- Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams has seen Buck Showalter make bold late-game decisions before.
The Orioles manager, who was the Arizona Diamondbacks’ skipper and coached Williams there from 1998-2000, once made one of the gutsiest calls in baseball history.
On May 28, 1998, Showalter’s Diamondbacks were clinging to a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and Barry Bonds stepping to the plate. Instead of pitching to the powerful San Francisco Giants slugger, Showalter elected to walk him intentionally and concede a run.
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The next batter, Brent Mayne, worked a full count and then lined out to deep right-center field, sealing a Diamondbacks win.
“It takes a great deal of intestinal fortitude, I guess is the right way to put it, to do something like that,” Williams said before Monday’s game. “That's an example. ‘This is what we're going to do. I've got confidence in you guys that you're going to be able to get this guy out.’ Who in their right mind wants to pitch to Bonds with the bases loaded anyway? But that showed us a lot.”
Monday, after a double by Ryan Zimmerman in a 2-2 game in the ninth inning, Showalter gave Nationals slugger Bryce Harper a free pass in order to face Ian Desmond, who has 15 home runs this year.
It wasn’t a decision nearly as surprising as walking Bonds with the bases loaded in 1998, but the move paid dividends. Right-hander Darren O’Day struck out Desmond and catcher Wilson Ramos, and the Orioles eventually beat Williams’ Nationals, 8-2, in 11 innings.
“You’re picking your poison there,” Showalter said after Monday’s game. “You’ve got three real good hitters, and you’re just trying to tilt anything you can in your favor a little bit.”
Though they’re now managers of rival clubs, there is no lack of respect between Showalter and Williams.
Watching Williams command his position with the Diamondbacks, Showalter knew the third baseman could have a bright future in baseball once his playing career ended, so he wasn’t surprised when Williams was hired by the Nationals last October.
“Matt doesn’t play for you. You feel like, ‘Golly, I got a chance to manage Matt,’” Showalter said.
When he wasn’t making unconventional, late-game decisions, Showalter enjoyed Williams’ company, especially as the 1998 Diamondbacks finished 33 games out of first place in the National League West.
“We’ve had some really funny times together,” Showalter said. “Sometimes you’ve gotta search for things to laugh about. Sometimes you’ve gotta laugh to keep from crying.”
Some of Showalter’s experiences with Williams still serve as teaching opportunities for the Orioles manager’s current players.
Showalter vividly recalls an incident when Williams, after asking for and receiving one final at-bat in a spring training game, fractured a bone by fouling a ball off his foot and was sidelined for more than two months.
“That was one of the worst medical reports,” Showalter said. “If somebody wants one last at-bat in spring training, they ain’t getting it. To this day, I still go, ‘No, you’re done.’ I tell them Matt Williams’ story and they go, ‘That’s a good idea, I’m done.’”
Showalter thinks the Nationals have the talent to make a deep postseason run, and he believes Williams is the proper person to guide them -- even if the Orioles manager was the one pulling the right strings Monday.
“[The Nationals] got a good one,” Showalter said. “They got a good one.”