PHOENIX — Over the winter, the Washington Nationals prepared for potential injuries to important starters by improving their bench, which woefully under-performed last season. But when reality struck, it turned out to be bleaker than expected. Six weeks into the season, five of the Nationals’ eight regular starters have landed on the disabled list at some point, including the team’s best hitter this season, Adam LaRoche.
With a record of 20-18, Nationals have stayed afloat, in part, thanks to the production from their bench. And no two players from that group have made as much of an impact as Danny Espinosa and Kevin Frandsen, who has been the Nationals’ best offseason addition. Their performance in the ninth inning of Monday’s 6-5 comeback win over the Arizona Diamondbacks was further proof of their effect.
Espinosa, playing second base every day as a ripple effect of Ryan Zimmerman’s broken thumb, hit the game-tying home run to start the ninth inning of a back-and-forth game in which the Nationals lost two leads. Frandsen, a late spring training addition who has played four positions this season, smashed the pinch-hit, go-ahead home run off Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed. The Nationals couldn’t count on that much production from last year’s bench.
“They’ve been forced into action because of the injuries we’ve had,” Manager Matt Williams said. “So they’re getting consistent at-bats, which helps. All that kind of builds on itself. Better timing, more a sense of feel of the game and all that stuff when you get a chance to get out there. We don’t want to rely on that certainly and that wasn’t the plan, but they’ve been doing really well.”
Frandsen, 31, has made the biggest difference. The Nationals didn’t originally envision him playing as much left field as he has, but injuries to Bryce Harper and Denard Span and his right-handed bat have kept him in the lineup. Frandsen entered the season with five career outfield starts and has made nine already this season. He has recently manned first base for LaRoche.
“It’s fun to play a bunch of different positions and have a manager that’s confident in putting you out in all different kinds of scenarios,” he said.
Frandsen’s ability to hit left-handed pitching off the bench has been an asset. The Nationals are only 19th in the majors with a .192 average in pinch-hitting situations, about the same spot as last season. But Frandsen has provided four of the team’s 10 pinch hits.
“I love to pinch hit because it’s an adrenaline moment,” he said. “I always take it as, every time you go to pinch hit, it’s for the team, it’s not for you. If you get out and have a good at-bat, it might look bad against your numbers, but you’re trying to get up there for the next guy or put your guys on top. Last year I started doing that and putting everything in the moment of ‘this is for each other, this if for my teammates.’ It makes it a less pressure-packed situation.”
Frandsen’s versatility and solid play have put him in 30 of the Nationals’ 38 games, with 12 starts. He is hitting .267 with a .333 on-base percentage, the consistent playing time helping him carry his timing over from game to game.
“He continues to hit, he continues to do things well in the field and forces his way in the lineup,” Williams said. “He’s been doing that a long time. It’s comforting to be able to have him play all over the diamond.”
“He’s extremely valuable,” added Espinosa. “Plays infield, outfield. Most guys that play middle infield don’t also play first. He can play first, third. He’s been very valuable. He’s a big part of this team.”
The Nationals’ bench has carried a heavy load. Players originally expected to be part of the bench have accounted for 35 percent of the team’s non-pitcher plate appearances (480 of 1,385). Backup catcher Jose Lobaton has 83 and Sandy Leon 49. Espinosa, who was originally slotted to rotate with Anthony Rendon at second and occasionally at shortstop, has 123 plate appearances. Tyler Moore, who also homered on Monday, and Zach Walters have combined for 67 plate appearances.
Some pieces of General Manager Mike Rizzo’s tweaked bench haven’t performed as well. Nate McLouth, signed to a two-year, $10.75 million deal this offseason to serve as a versatile fourth outfielder, snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a single on Monday, but is still hitting .091 (5 for 55). Lobaton, acquired in a February trade to serve as insurance for oft-injured catcher Wilson Ramos, has been solid but not spectacular, hitting .253 with a 94 OPS+.
The resurgence of Espinosa has been an encouraging development for the Nationals. Espinosa is still striking out a high rate — 30.1 percent this season compared to career 27.3 percent — but he is being more judicious with pitches. According to FanGraphs.com, Espinosa is swinging at 34.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, far less than the 41.3 percent he hacked at last season.
As a result, Espinosa is hitting .243 with a .285 on-base percentage and 37 strikeouts, but has provided double the power he did during his injury- and slump-filled 2013. Espinosa leads the Nationals with six home runs and his .461 slugging percentage is third-best on the team. His defense, too, has been strong. “He’s been playing well,” Williams said.
Through all the injuries, the Nationals have been treading water. Since Zimmerman broke his finger sliding into second base in Atlanta on April 12, the second of the team’s major injuries, they are 13-15. On Monday, they were able to avoid dropping to .500 and losing a fourth straight game thanks to the heroics of the players who have stemmed the tide in the meantime.
“We believe we’re a good team,” Span said. “And that’s what good teams do: They find a way to come back and win. It just shows what type of character we have. We have a lot of fight. Even though we have guys down, guys are stepping up with Espi and Frandsen.”