JUPITER, Fla. — Reed Johnson has been in this position before. The 39-year-old outfielder has been a bench player for many years so he knows what it is like to still be in camp in the final week of March with much uncertainty. And with four spring training and two exhibition games left before opening day, Johnson is still in Nationals camp.
“There’s some stress to it,” Johnson said. “You just try to focus on what’s important and what matters. And right now, I’ve been working on the cage and syncing my front shoulder and attacking the top half of the baseball and that’s when I go on the field that’s important. It’s not, ‘I gotta get a hit or two hits or I’m not going to make the team.’ Whatever I’m doing right now, all the small steps that I’m taking to hit a ball hard to get on base, are really what you gotta focus on. That’s no different than the season.”
Johnson is 8 for 26 entering Saturday’s game. The 39-year-old offers a veteran right-handed bat who makes contact and has a lot of pinch-hitting experience. After missing much of the season with a foot injury last year, he is healthy. He went 5 for 22 last season, and 2 for 11 as a pinch hitter. For his career, he .310 against left-handed pitching and .272 as a pinch hitter.
“I feel great,” Johnson said. “As far as how the spring has gone in terms of quality at-bats. I just feel like I’m putting together god at-bats and putting the barrel on the ball. That’s all you can ask.”
The problem is space. Four of the five spots on the Nationals bench are all but assured: first baseman/left fielder Clint Robinson, catcher Jose Lobaton, outfielder Michael A. Taylor and infielder Stephen Drew. The three players that have cases for the final spot on the bench: Johnson, infielder Brendan Ryan and outfielder Matt den Dekker. Chris Heisey and Scott Sizemore are also vying for a spot.
Ryan, 34, has struggled as a hitter over the past few years, but is a stellar defender and is 10 for 25 this spring. Den Dekker, 28, is the best athlete of the bunch, a speedy runner, solid outfielder and an improved hitter with some power, but he is left-handed — which the bench already has plenty of — and he has a minor league option left. Ryan and Johnson have April 3 opt-outs in their minor league contracts.
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker likes speed, so that might help den Dekker’s case. If the Nationals pinch run for players late in the game — say, perhaps Ryan Zimmerman, to alleviate more strain on his foot, or Wilson Ramos — another infielder would make sense. Ryan has also played 22 innings of outfield in the majors.
Late in a game, den Dekker provides the most power, Ryan the best glove and Johnson the most contact. Johnson doesn’t think that less power would hold him back as a bench bat.
“A lot of the times, the nine spot may come up to lead off the inning,” Johnson said. “You might be down by two. A home run means nothing. The chances of you getting an at-bat late down by two runs and two guys and you hit a three-run home, those opportunities don’t come that much. You’ve got to be able to get on base. If you’re leading off the ninth and you get on base, then you just brought Bryce Harper to the plate. If we stay out of a double play, you brought him to the plate.”