Matt Stairs walked to the plate in the ninth inning last night, hitless in 13 at-bats, and looked up to the third deck in right field. A McDonald’s billboard hung on the façade, maybe 475 feet or so from home plate. “That’s what I was shooting for,” Stairs said.
Stairs has crafted an utterly remarkable career out of forgetting slumps and swinging hard, and he reached a milestone last night doing both. Stairs smoked a line-drive single over the second baseman’s head off Dennys Baez. Afterward, the ball rested on a shelf in his locker, “100th Pinch Hit” scrawled on it in black ink. After waiting more than a month for his first one this year, Stairs became the 18th player in major league to reach 100 pinch-hits.
“I didn’t really think a whole lot of it,” Stairs said. “I knew I was stuck on 99. I wasn’t really making a big deal of it. A lot of people were talking about it. It’s special to get 100 pinch-hits. There’s a lot of 0-fers in there, but you’ve got to put those behind you. If it doesn’t happen one night, you’ve got to come back the next day. I think I’ve been pretty good through my career of being positive, and not letting an 0-for-12 or 0-for-13 start put me down.”
Stairs, 43, has played for 13 teams, and no fan base remembers him more fondly than Philadelphia’s. In 2008, Stairs smashed one of the most important hits in Phillies history, the tie-breaking, game-winning two-run homer un in Game 5 of the NLCS that sparked the Phillies’ World Series run. When he walked to the plate last night, the crowd showered him cheers.
If he came along later, Stairs may have been an everyday player for years, perhaps even a star. He has a better career slugging percentage (.479) than Eddie Murray and a better on-base percentage (.357) than Reggie Jackson. His OPS (.836) is better than Roberto Clemente’s. But he played in a period where evaluators allowed his relative dearth of speed and defensive acumen to obscure his offensive value.
He hit 38 home runs in 1999 and had a 142 OPS+ in 2003. Somewhere along the way, though, he turned into a pinch-hitter for hire.
“Succeeding is tough,” Stairs said. “Accepting my role, I love it. I love pinch-hitting. I could pinch-hit every time.”
He could navigate the rollercoaster swings, like staring up at the scoreboard when you walk to bat in May and still see .000 as your batting average. He lost his rhythm early in the year, and without regular playing time it became hard to recapture. He tried standing in the batter’s box as pitchers threw bullpen sessions just to replicate at-bats.
“As a pinch-hitter, if you lose your timing, you’re going to lose it for a while,” Stairs said. “When I wasn’t feeling good earlier, it was a struggle. I was having a hard time getting a base hit in BP.”
Three or four at-bats ago, he said, he started feeling. He ripped a ball right at a third baseman, just got under another. He could sense a hit coming, and it did wonders for him when he got it.
“I’m not saying I’m locked in,” Stairs said. “But I’ll feel a lot better coming to the ballpark tomorrow knowing that 1) I have an average and 2) I got another knock pinch-hitting.”
The knock occasion of that knock brought raised a question: How many more pinch-hits does Matt Stairs have left in him? He still feels comfortable in a batter’s box. He’s gotten smarter as a hitter, learned how to use his hands more. When he’ll stop, he hasn’t thought much about that.
“I know one thing,” Stairs said. “When I step in the batter’s box, I’m going to swing as hard as I can and see what happens. Hopefully, something positive comes out of it. If not, I’ll come back the next day.”
FROM THE POST
Despite a three-run ninth, the Nationals’ offensive slog continued in a 7-4 loss to the Phillies, their sixth straight loss in Philadelphia.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse was off.
Bowie 2, Harrisburg 1: Brad Meyers allowed two runs in seven innings on eight hits and no walk, striking out seven. In 36 1/3 innings, Meyers, incredibly, has a 38-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Stephen Lombardozzi went 2 for 5.
Myrtle Beach 3,Potomac 0:Eury Perez went 1 for 3 in his return from the disabled list. The Nationals struck out 15 times. Trevor Holder allowed two runs in five innings on five hits and no walks, striking out three.
Harrisburg was off, and we don’t think Bryce Harper got any hits.