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For Nationals’ replacement players, a rare and weird opportunity

Jonathan Lucroy is one of nine players helping to fill gaps left by the Nationals’ coronavirus outbreak last week. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In a tense moment of the fourth inning, Jonathan Lucroy jogged out to chat with reliever Sam Clay before they attacked Freddie Freeman. They did so for the Washington Nationals on April 7, 2021, in the second game of their season. Look it up.

The Nationals’ roster, at present, is rounded out by nine guys who expected to begin the season in the minors — or, in Lucroy’s case, on the couch. That may not be the case for too much longer. As the Nationals arrive in Los Angeles to begin a six-game trip, the hope is that some of those missing players, who are out after a coronavirus outbreak in the organization, could return against the Dodgers or the St. Louis Cardinals next week. The club is playing without Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Alex Avila, Josh Harrison, Brad Hand, Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester and Jordy Mercer because they either tested positive for the coronavirus or were a close contact to a teammate who did. And soon they’ll come back in stages and move the replacement players aside.

In the meantime, an odd mix of prospects, old rookies and a veteran — that’s Lucroy again — will get a rare chance to impress in April. It may feel a bit uncomfortable, too. Lucroy is with the Nationals because Gomes and Avila, their two catchers, are sidelined by coronavirus protocols. Clay, 27, made his major league debut Wednesday, struck out Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, then admitted that “the circumstances have put me here, unfortunately.” But the Nationals need them for a stretch that would be trying even without a difficult schedule piled on.

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So, for now, Lucroy, Clay, Tres Barrera, Carter Kieboom, Luis García, Yadiel Hernandez, Cody Wilson, Ryne Harper and Kyle McGowin linger. And Manager Dave Martinez has found an easy way to make them feel like part of the team.

“Putting them in there to play,” Martinez said, laughing, after Washington lost both games of a doubleheader to the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday. “They’re not just going to sit around.”

That was evident as the Nationals dropped two of three to Atlanta. Lucroy signed Saturday and was Max Scherzer’s catcher by Tuesday afternoon. He even punched a two-run double in his first at-bat for Washington. Clay, a slider-heaving lefty, threw his scoreless inning against the Braves. McGowin, a starter-turned-reliever, has already logged 2⅓ innings and allowed no runs.

The Washington Nationals welcomed 5,000 fans for opening day, days after their original date was postponed due to players testing positive for coronavirus. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Alice Li/The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Barrera, 26, caught Stephen Strasburg’s gem Wednesday afternoon. Wilson, a speedy outfielder who had never played above Class A, made his MLB debut by pinch-hitting in the first leg of the doubleheader. Hernandez, a 33-year-old rookie who defected from Cuba in 2015, pinch-hit in the nightcap. Martinez called on him while some of the regulars were dealing with cramps.

“You give the young guys the chance to come out there and get their feet wet,” Strasburg said after pitching six scoreless innings Wednesday. “And I think that’s the exciting thing, just to see some of these young guys come in and, you know, you’ve heard about them and stuff and they get the opportunity. And none of them seem fazed by it.”

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Kieboom and García don’t stand out as much. At least they shouldn’t. Kieboom, 23, was optioned to the minors in late March after he was unable to secure the starting third baseman job this spring. García, 20, was sent down for fine-tuning after he made 35 starts at second in 2020 (in place of Starlin Castro, who broke his left wrist). But they were called right up once Harrison and Mercer were unavailable.

Since then, Kieboom has pinch-hit twice and García has been a pinch hitter, pinch runner and starting second baseman, appearing in all three games. In his first pinch-hit plate appearance, against lefty reliever Tyler Matzek on Tuesday, Kieboom worked an eight-pitch walk. In his next one, against lefty reliever A.J. Minter on Wednesday, he struck out swinging on an inside fastball. García, so far, is hitless in just three plate appearances.

“We’re going to take our time with him,” Martinez said of Kieboom on Wednesday. “I truly believe he’s going to help us and be playing here every day, but we want to make sure at this point that he’s ready.”

Translation: He won’t be here long. Not this time, anyhow.

That is probably true for all the players who arrived from the club’s alternate site in Fredericksburg, Va. Clay has moved his possessions from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Fredericksburg, then from Fredericksburg to D.C. when he was called up for Opening Day, then from D.C. back to Fredericksburg when Opening Day was postponed, then from Fredericksburg back to D.C. when he was called up again for the new Opening Day. He has mostly lived out of his car. That’s being a fringe player in 2021.

“Four times in less than a week,” he said of how often he has moved this month. “So it’s been a lot of driving, but definitely a great feeling.”

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That is the paradox for Clay, Lucroy, Barrera, Kieboom, García, Hernandez, Wilson, Harper and McGowin: A lot, but a great feeling. Because maybe Lucroy is solid with the Nationals, as he was with the Chicago White Sox this spring, and uses that to join another team and reach 10 years of major league service, securing lifetime benefits for him and his family. Maybe McGowin does enough to be the first reliever promoted when the bullpen has an injury later this season. Maybe Hernandez, who hit .469 in West Palm Beach, collects the sixth hit of his career, then the seventh, then who knows?

Lucroy joked Tuesday that he feels like Shane Falco, a character played by Keanu Reeves in the movie “The Replacements.” Those replacements had crossed a picket line during a strike for a fictional NFL. These replacements — Lucroy, Clay, the rest of them — aren’t so despised by the players who were already on the team.

They may each be walking symbols of a weird and troubling stretch for the Nationals. But forgive them for still trying to make the most of it.

“Whatever happens is going to happen, and I’m okay with it,” Lucroy said, hinting at the strong likelihood that he will be cut loose whenever Gomes and Avila both return. “I mean, these guys, they got to do what they got to do, and they got a special clubhouse. So I’m just happy to be a small part of it right now.”