In the ninth inning today, the Nationals needed a pinch-hitter against Heath Bell, one of the nastiest closers in baseball. There was one out. The bases were empty. The Nationals had thrown away scoring chances all game. They needed to some kind of spark. Manager Jim Riggleman scanned and sent to the plate Matt Stairs, the 43-year-old who was 4 for 39 this season.
“I’m confident in him,” Riggleman said. “It’s tough. It probably would help him if I started him a game now and then. It’s hard to stay sharp under those circumstances.”
Stairs rewarded Riggleman, lining his fifth hit of the season into center field and started the rally that gave the Nationals’ a 2-0 victory over the Padres, one of Stairs’ dozen former teams. Stairs has perhaps drawn more ire from fans than any player on the Nationals’ roster. Sunday, though, he showed why the Nationals want him around.
“Is it frustrating to have five hits already this year? Yeah,” Stairs said. “That’s one of those where you just hope you come through in a big time.”
Stairs has started only three games this season. Riggleman had planned to sneak him into the lineup more often before the season began, but the hot hitting from Michael Morse and Laynce Nix has forced Stairs to be a pinch-hitter only. Remaining ready when your at-bats come one at a time, usually days apart, is a unique challenge.
“You can sit around and you can make excuses about not throwing at-bats together, losing your swing,” Stairs said. “But I’m not going to complain about it. I signed up for pinch-hitter. You got to take the bumps. Hopefully you’ll have more good days than you have bad days. But you’re not going to as a pinch-hitter.
“It’s a tough situation. It’s probably the toughest spot in baseball, to be a pinch-hitter. On this road trip, I feel like I’ve been swinging the bat pretty good, swinging pretty good. I also struck once, which a bonus.”
On the Nationals’ now-complete road trip, Stairs began tinkering with a change in his swing. He is using a higher leg kick, like he used to when he played for the A’s in the late 90s. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to start his swing early enough to use the higher leg kick, but after chatting with Nix, who also uses a pronounced leg kick, Stairs had confidence it might work for him.
“That lets me sit back and recognize pitches,” Stairs said. “I actually hit a curveball today. That’s probably the first time I hit a curveball in six or seven years for a base hit.”
After Stairs’s single, he turned and jogged off the field, replaced by pinch-runner Brian Bixler. He was still 5 for 40. But he watched Bixler score the winning run, the run he helped created. Stairs still isn’t having the season he wants, but that’s a start.