A sliver of the Nationals offensive struggles, not just in Wednesday’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, has been the early struggles of the bench. Last season, the Nationals enjoyed the results of perhaps the best bench in baseball, one that help carry the team through potentially crippling injuries to starters and produced repeated clutch pinch hits.
But with a healthy roster on opening day, the reserves have had little opportunity to play. Except for recent starts by Chad Tracy when Ryan Zimmerman first strained his hamstring and Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore when Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper were hurt and sick, respectively, the bench has stumbled in its few pinch-hitting opportunities.
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. So far this season, the Nationals are hitting .143/.226/.179 (4 for 28) in pinch-hitting at-bats, good for a tie for 21st in the majors. It’s still early in the season, but just like last season, when the lineup is struggling, a clutch pinch hit could resurrect a victory.
“You really don’t get in that groove,” said Tracy, who is 1 for 7 with a walk in pinch-hit at-bats this season after becoming one of the best at the craft last season. “You just miss balls or fly out to the track. When you’re playing every day, you usually don’t miss balls except a little bit here and there. But as far as the numbers and all that, I don’t really have an explanation for it. Maybe teams are scouting our bench a little more than they did last year. It’s one of those things that the more you try to do up there as a bench guy, the worse you are. You can’t ever really let loose and let it fly because you’re trying to just put the barrel on it somehow.”
Lombardozzi, who is 3 for 6 with a walk in pinch-hit at-bats this season, has carried the team’s bench in the situation. Moore is 0 for 7, hitting better when he starts. Roger Bernadina is 0 for 6, and 0 for 16 overall. He has been hurt the most by a lack of playing time, starting only twice and struggling to get into a groove.
“You can always find things to cause and effect but he’s just not quite there,” Johnson said. “Not having a lot of playing time, not getting a lot of ABs in the spring could affect him. But his approach last year was so good and his performance was so good that it’s going to take a little time. He got a couple starts in [Miami] when some guys were down and usually that jump-starts them but he didn’t quite get going.”
A case for more playing time for Bernadina isn’t being made here. Heading into the season, Johnson knew one of his biggest challenges would be finding playing time for all of his bench players. When he wanted the matchup against a left-handed starter and wanted to rest struggling veteran Adam LaRoche, Johnson started Moore. Johnson, however, could potentially find a way to start Moore every third game against a left-handed starter and Lombardozzi maybe starting every eight to 10 days. (Lombardozzi will start Thursday, but not at second base, as Johnson hopes to jump-start the offense.)
During spring training, Lombardozzi played in 28 of the Nationals 34 games and had 66 at-bats, and Moore each played 32 with 64 at-bats. Tracy played in 26 games and had 47 at-bats, all three among the team leaders in spring action. With the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, Bernadina had 22 at-bats over six games, limited by a minor wrist injury, and received another 12 at-bats when he rejoined the Nationals.
Once the season started, the playing time for the Nationals reserves came to a screeching halt. That’s expected with a roster of established players at every position. But that has also hurt the bench’s ability to produce when called upon to pinch hit.
“We don’t want guys to get injured, especially our starters,” Tracy said. “But at the same time, it’s kinda a catch-22 for us. If they’re healthy, we’re not seeing any time, which makes our jobs harder.
“As far driving balls and that kind of thing, obviously when you start to see pitches you can start to let it go and give 100 percent of your power and that sort of thing into your swing,” he added. “Coming off the bench, you have that one pitch and you’re swinging at it, just trying to get it on the barrel somehow. Sometimes you try to baby the bat a little more through the zone than you should, especially if you’re not getting hits. Some you start looking for the hit instead of the extra-base hit. It’s one of those things where we talk and we’re always prepared and we have a plan.”