The Nationals have been playing spring training games for more than a week and a half, and the players with the most playing time so far are either prospects, non-roster players trying to make the team or major league backups. Tyler Moore has played in nine of the 11 games, mostly at first base, and is 6 for 22 with four RBI and seven strikeouts. Nate McLouth has played in six games, throughout the outfield, and is 2 for 14 with five strikeouts. Jose Lobaton, who is still learning the pitching staff, has played in six games and is 1 for 11.
Scott Hairston is also in this group. He has played in six games and the 10-year veteran even rode the bus to Jupiter, two hours each way, on Saturday to play in a split-squad game. He is 2 for 16 with six strikeouts.
The amount of early playing time is intentional. Manager Matt Williams wants to lean on the backups and players fighting for spots to evaluate them early on. And as the regular season nears and the spring roster is trimmed, he will ease off them and push the regulars deeper into games more often. On Monday night, Williams had Bryce Harper play six innings and Adam LaRoche was in the game for seven. Although spring playing time may be more scarce towards the end of the month, the role players like Hairston have mostly become accustomed.
“I’ve gotten used to my role,” he said. “I think it’s more psychological than anything. You want, as a player, to prepare yourself. You learn from your mistakes. In spring training, you’re given that time and window to make those mistakes and adjustments. I’m going through that right now. I think once the season starts, get the ball rolling, hopefully we’ll all be at that position and we’ve taken our lumps in spring training and learn from it and made our adjustments and able to convert that into success.”
It’s a careful balance: the starters need at-bats to get ready, but so do the backups. To prepare for the season, Hairston wants to see a lot of pitches and get a lot of at-bats. Recently, he has been trying to see a lot of pitches during his at-bats while working on his swing, and trying to avoid being caught in limbo between both.
An added benefit of the early playing time for Hairston has been a chance to face more right-handed pitching that he normally does. The left fielder has a career .226 average and .694 OPS against them, while posting a .268 average and .815 OPS against left-handers. Last season, he had only 31 at-bats against right-handers and notched only three hits. Against left-handers, Hairston hit .214 with a .743 OPS. (His numbers against left-hander were better after he was traded from the Cubs to Nationals: 13 for 48 with two home runs against left-handers.)
“It’s actually a good thing,” Hairston said of facing right-handers often in spring. “Not only that, but I faced some pretty tough right-handers. I think it’s only going to make me better. I normally don’t typically see those guys but it helps me to keep my shoulder in and I think to see those guys early, right out the gate, it can only make you better, I guess. It has to. I enjoy it. Trying to step your game up. At the same time, it’s hard to work on stuff with those type of pitchers you’ve facing. As long as I’m picking the ball up, which is gradually getting better, it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
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