The Nationals did not plan on giving Roger Bernadina another chance like the one he has right now. He was going to be their fourth or fifth outfielder, perhaps expendable altogether upon Bryce Harper’s call-up. But injuries have thrust him into left field, armed with another opportunity to convince his team that this year will be different than the others.
He is off to strong start. Bernadina has hit home runs in his past two games, and last night he drove in three runs to key the Nationals’ early barrage in their 7-3 win over the Reds. He used a more simple, relaxed approach at the plate. It is, again, only a start, and Bernadina knows what matters for his future is how he capitalizes. “I’ve got to do it more consistently,” Bernadina said Tuesday. “That’s the key for me to be successful in this league.”
The Nationals gave Bernadina 798 at-bats over the past two seasons, ample opportunity to assert himself as a major leaguer, but he remained more potential than production. Flashes of brilliance only interrupted extended slumps. In the outfield, he made jaw-dropping catches, but also took adventurous paths to fly balls. He hit .245/.305/.375 over the span.
He received his latest chance when Jayson Werth broke his left wrist, vacating an outfield spot until at least June, the earliest Michael Morse could return. Even then, Bernadina could force himself into the lineup in center until August, when Werth comes back. General Manager Mike Rizzo said the Nationals would fill their needs from within.
With Xavier Nady struggling, Johnson decided to dole out playing time to Bernadina.
“I hate to say it, but I’m even auditioning,” Johnson said. “I like to pick a guy and say, ‘You’re the guy.’ Nobody has grabbed the job by the horns and taken it.”
In his first game after Werth’s injury, neither did Bernadina. Tuesday in Pittsburgh, Bernadina went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, and he misplayed a fly ball that landed on the left field warning track. Thursday afternoon, Johnson sat down Bernadina and told him to relax. That night, he launched a 430-foot home run to the opposite field.
And so Friday afternoon, Johnson plugged Bernadina back into the second spot in the lineup. With Desmond on first, he went ahead 3-1 in the count. He spit on a sinker he didn’t like, running the count full. And then he dug in. Bernadina fouled away four consecutive pitches.
Leake threw a low, 90-mph sinker – “he gave a pitch I could handle,” Bernadina said. Bernadina hammered it with a compact swing. The ball hissed into the right field seats, giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead.
The shot was instructive for Bernadina. Johnson feels as if his swing can become too long, that Bernadina tries too hard to hit home runs. When he relaxes, his raw strength will take care of the power.
“I wasn’t looking for it,” Bernadina said. “I was just trying to get on base.”
Bernadina came to the plate again in the second inning with Wilson Ramos on second and two outs. He flicked a breaking ball to left field for a single. Ramos lumbered home, giving Bernadina three RBI in the first two innings. For good measure, he also stole second base. The opposite-field single was the perfect example of what Johnson wants from Bernadina.
“His stride is shorter,” Johnson said. “He’s quicker to the ball. He’s a better hitter right now. I like what I’m seeing.”
“I started to find my stroke” in batting practice, Bernadina said. “I’ve been able to take it into the game.”
The question for Bernadina, as it has been for a couple years, is can he keep this going? Can he finally seize his chance? Time will tell, but he’s off to a good start.
“I’m having more confidence up there,” Bernadina said. “I feel better. I’ve been working on it.”