Ask any major leaguer to name the toughest job in their sport, and most will mention pinch hitting. Getting one at-bat a game — or perhaps every few games, in slower times — leaves more time to think and evaluate and stew than most hitters would prefer. Taking that at-bat late in the game, against a hard throwing reliever paid specifically to get outs like those, constitutes a substantial challenge.
“I’ve always said that long men in the bullpen and guys hitting off the bench, those are the hardest jobs in baseball,” Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon said Friday night. “So tip my hat to those guys.”
Stephen Drew hit a pinch hit home run to tie Friday night’s game in the sixth inning. Then Chris Heisey hit his third pinch hit homer of the season to give the Nationals a cushion in the bottom of the eighth. The Nationals had never hit two pinch hit home runs in the same game before, and are now second in baseball with six pinch-hit home runs in 35 games.
“Your bench is so very important,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “You want some production off your guys on the bench and that’s why you try to give them some few at-bats and some action so that they feel more comfortable. These guys they work hard and they hit a lot and they have a lot of pride coming off the bench and they’re proud of what they’re doing as a unit.”
Drew has been a regular player for most of his career, not used to these pinch hit situations like Heisey — whose eight pinch hit home runs since 2012 are tied for most in baseball. The 33-year-old former elite shortstop prospect said he is trying to learn from Heisey and Clint Robinson, who was also new to bench duties last season after being a regular in the minors. Drew was 0 for 8 as a pinch hitter this season before Friday’s homer.
“Just trying not to overswing, to just stay loose and be ready. I think as of late, I’ve gotten better at it,” Drew said. “I try not to take too many swings in the cage, just be ready throughout the game. But also you want to be able to have that good feel when you go up to bat, like you’ve already had three or four at-bats in your mind. So, more mentally staying focused that way and being ready to go up there. It’s a good feeling tonight, just to be able to contribute and tie up the game right there.”
As of late Friday night, the Nationals’ bench had driven in the third-most runs in the National League in pinch-hit situations. Washington entered the night with the second-best pinch-hit slugging percentage in baseball, though it ranked 10th in the National League in pinch-hit on-base percentage, and seventh in batting average.
Along with Drew, Heisey and Robinson, Michael A. Taylor adds another dimension off the bench. He is not as natural a pinch hit option for Baker as Robinson, Heisey and Drew given his lack of experience in that role and his potential to contribute defensively. Jose Lobaton is not much of a pinch hitting option either, as managers generally do their best to avoid using the backup catcher unless absolutely necessary.
So over the last week, Heisey, Robinson and Drew — “the three amigos,” as Gio Gonzalez called them Friday, Baker’s main pinch hit options — have all chipped in pinch-hit home runs. Baker said he likes his bench to include former everyday players and experienced veterans like Robinson or Drew because they are able to handle the mental challenges that come with the role.
“You want the guys who have played regular at some point and time, so those 0-for-1’s, I’ve seen what they it does on a young player. 0 for 1, and they take it the whole week like they’re 0-for-10 or more,” Baker said. “(These guys) know that if they keep plugging away and I try to match them up with guys that i think that I they’re most likely to have some success against. We’re fortunate enough that it worked today.”