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With bullpen set up, seventh inning gets away from Nats

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Nationals needed a win Tuesday night to have the opportunity to play at least one more game this year. Bryce Harper set the stage with a game-tying home run in the top of the seventh.

That gave manager Matt Williams some options in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, including bringing star right-hander Stephen Strasburg out of the bullpen. Had Williams made that move, he would have still had Jordan Zimmermann ready to go on full rest in a decisive Game 5 on Thursday. But that possibility was rendered moot due to the Nats' season-ending 3-2 loss to the Giants.

Instead, lefty-hander Matt Thornton started the seventh inning. Before it ended, right-handers Aaron Barrett and Rafael Soriano had also pitched and the Giants had scored the run that sent them to the NL Championship Series to play the Cardinals.

"We had it set up pretty good," Williams reflected.

Thornton gave up a pair of one-out singles. Barrett entered, walked Hunter Pence to load the bases and then bounced a wild pitch past catcher Wilson Ramos that allowed what turned out to be the winning run to cross the plate.

Williams, naturally, was asked to explain his thought process in going with Thornton and then not bringing in, say, Tyler Clippard or even closer Drew Storen when San Francisco began to construct a rally.

"Because those are our seventh-inning guys," said Williams. "That's how we set this up. We had two lefties [Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik] at the top of the inning, and if we got to the righties [Buster Posey and Pence], we were going to go with Barrett. That's what he's done for us all year long.

"They got a couple of base hits and the wild pitch did us in. You know, that's the way the game goes sometimes, and I'm proud of the way they have gone about it this year, and they should be, too. We're certainly not going to use our closer in the seventh inning. So that's why we went with it."

Nor did Williams think about bringing Soriano, who had been the Nationals' closer much of the season before being supplanted by Storen, into the seventh earlier.

"I don't think so. Aaron's been doing that job for us all year long," said Williams. "He's a strikeout guy. He's got the ability to strike that guy out. Unfortunately, it was a wild pitch. So, you know, that happens. But he's been our guy that we've gone to in the middle of orders with every team that we've played all year long to get a big strikeout or get a big out."

Williams pulled starter Gio Gonzalez after four innings, in part because the pitcher's spot in the order came up in the top of the fifth with two outs and a runner on second with Washington down by a run. That brought rookie starter Tanner Roark, the odd man out when the NLDS rotation was put together, in to pitch the fifth. The Giants loaded the bases with one out, but they didn't score as left-hander Jerry Blevins came in to strike out Brandon Belt to end the inning.

"In a normal game and not an elimination game, [Gonzalez] may still be in that game," Williams said. "But we know that if we lose it, then we go home."

Williams said he didn't think about using Strasburg instead of Roark in that situation, and he didn't want to discuss the conditions under which Strasburg might have been used on short rest.

"It's irrelevant. Did I have a scenario in mind when we were going to Stephen? No, it's irrelevant. Doesn't matter. He didn't pitch," Williams said. "That's Tanner. Stephen, as I said pregame, it was emergency only for Stephen. We get into late innings, then he's our guy. He's only on three days' rest. Tanner was rested and ready."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for
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