The Washington Nationals are off to a slow start. After Tuesday’s game against the San Francisco Giants, the Nats’ record is 23 wins, 23 losses. Not so great for a team that folks thought was a lock for the playoffs and even the World Series.

Frustrated fans point to ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s disappointing record and the team’s sputtering offense as reasons for the so-so record.

But there’s another reason: The Goon Squad. That’s the nickname for the Nats’ bench players — Chad Tracy, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina. (Bernadina has a cool nickname of his own: the Shark.)

Last season, those four players had 860 at-bats. That’s a little more than what one full-time player usually gets. (Derek Jeter, for example, had 683 at-bats last season.) The Goon Squadders batted .276 with 21 home runs and 95 runs batted in. They also scored 92 runs and played excellent defense.

With those numbers, it was as if the Nats had a very good extra player on the team last year.

This season, not so much. Tracy, Lombardozzi, Moore and Bernadina together are batting around .170. And the Goon Squad is not hitting with power and scoring runs the way it did last season. So now the Nats don’t have the secret weapon of a good bench.

That’s a great reminder for kids who play team sports. Every team needs good bench players. Not everyone can be a star or a starter such as Bryce Harper or Ryan Zimmerman. Teams need players to step up and do their best when the starters get hurt or tired.

They are the pinch hitters who get a key hit to keep a rally going. Or the kids who bounce off the bench and spark their teams with hustle and defense.

Being on the bench is not easy, in the pros or in kids’ sports. Everybody wants to play. And it’s tough to play well when you get into the game for only five minutes or one at-bat.

But a good bench player doesn’t complain about limited playing time. He practices hard and pays attention to the action when he isn’t playing. She stays ready so that when her time comes, she can do something to help the team.

The Goon Squad did all that and more last season. They will need to do it again if the Nationals are going to be the team we all thought they could be.

Fred Bowen is the author of 19 sports books for kids, including nine baseball books. His latest baseball book is “Perfect Game.”