A portion of the Nationals’ offensive struggles were exposed in one moment of Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs. Manager Davey Johnson yanked Gio Gonzalez after 86 pitches and seven innings and turned to the team’s most experienced pinch hitter, Chad Tracy, who entered the game hitting .143. Tracy struck out to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning. Johnson’s hope for an offensive spark didn’t come to fruition.
While one moment of one of 162 games shouldn’t be exponentially magnified, it was part of a trend concerning the team’s pinch hitters. After posting perhaps the best pinch-hitting numbers as a group in the majors last season, the Nationals’ pinch hitters have been among the worst six weeks into the season.
The Nationals are 7 for 48 (.146) in pinch hit at-bats, worst among National League teams. They are one of three teams –White Sox and Royals — to not have a pinch-hit RBI. They have two pinch-hit extra base hits, both by Steve Lombardozzi. Tracy is 1 for 13 with a walk in the same situations, and Roger Bernadina is 1 for 9 with a walk and Tyler Moore is 0 for 9.
Last season, the bench led the majors with a .288 average and .786 OPS in pinch-hit at-bats. They produced four home runs, drew 22 walks and drove in 26 runs. By this time, Tracy had produced two important hits to help win games. Colored by past experiences losing valued bench players to free agency, see Laynce Nix after the 2011 season, the Nationals locked up Tracy for 2013 with a one-year extension in late August.
But so far this season, Tracy and company have struggled. Less playing time isn’t an explanation as Bernadina is the only player to have fewer at-bats through the same point last season. Through the first 37 games last season, he was hitting .233 in 73 at-bats and is hitting .103 in 39 at-bats in the same number of games this season. The rest of the bench has had a similar amount or more at-bats through the first 37 games this year as they did last year. The offensive struggles of the bench maybe be in line with those of the entire team, pressing in important situations.