Mention the team’s health, and Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams knocks on wood.
The Nationals have been at full strength for a week, and Williams doesn’t want to jinx it.
But for now, the healthy roster has created a problem, albeit a good one, of trying to find playing time for everyone.
Utility players Kevin Frandsen, Nate McLouth and Scott Hairston typically see few at-bats by the nature of their roles. And the full lineup has limited their opportunities even more.
Compared to how much those three played in the first week of June, their collective at-bats have been cut in half during the first week of July. It can be psychologically draining to prepare to play and then not have your name called.
“As a bench player, you’re going through different situations in your head the whole time, and most of the time, you don’t get used during the game,” Hairston said. “The anxiety goes up and down. Then the game’s over, and then you take your uniform off and you didn’t play. Then you have to get ready for the next day, and sometimes it can be four or five days going through that without getting any at-bats.”
McLouth has been an everyday player for most of his major league career, including last season with Baltimore.
He knew what he signed up for when he joined the Nationals during the offseason, but he said he’s still adjusting to the change.
Hairston has been a utility player the majority of his 11-year career, and he said it hasn’t gotten easier for him.
The biggest challenge is timing at the plate. Batting practice helps, but it’s not the same as facing live pitching. The reserves try to remedy that by standing in when Nationals pitchers have their bullpen sessions to see game-like speed.
Players in the starting lineup have multiple chances against a pitcher to make adjustments in between plate appearances, but utility players often get just one. What they do with their one at-bat late in the game against the other team’s top relievers could determine how soon they play again.
“If it’s just one at-bat on a pinch-hit, and you pop up or ground out, then it seems like an 0 for 4 instead of an 0 for 1,” Hairston said. “If you get a hit, then it feels like you’re 4 for 4 because it’s a great accomplishment to come off the bench after sitting eight innings and get a base hit.”
Williams noted he has the option to get the utility guys more playing time when the Nationals are in Baltimore for two games this week and can use a designated hitter, but it seems unlikely any of them will start with second baseman Danny Espinosa also on the bench now that Ryan Zimmerman is back at third base and Anthony Rendon is at second.
“It’s hard for everybody,” Williams said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but the guys who have experience doing it, it’s a little easier for them. They know how to prepare. They know the chances they potentially would get. The situation comes up during the game, and I’ve got four guys over there with helmets on ready to go.”
Frandsen said the veteran utility players stick together on the bench and track what’s happening in the game together in an effort to be prepared in case they get called on. Frandsen said he often gets asked if he’s disappointed to be a utility player.
“Pinch hitting is like the ultimate team at-bat,” Frandsen said. “Whether it’s to spark your team or get your team going by moving a guy over or doing something like that, when you [approach pinch hitting] in the least selfish way, it makes it so much easier.”
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Box score: Orioles 8, Nationals 2 (11)