CHICAGO – One of the best things about baseball is that it provides so many opportunities for bit players to become stars for a day. The clutch hit, a heads-up defensive play, opportunistic base running — anyone can be one of the heroes.
When the guys at the end of the bench also have spotlight moments on opening day, it’s the equivalent of a doubleheader sweep for all the game’s underdogs. Chad Tracy of the Washington Nationals now knows how it feels.
In his first game with Washington, the reserve infielder quickly validated management’s decision to give him a spot on the roster. Tracy delivered a two-out double in the ninth inning Thursday and Ian Desmond followed with a run-scoring single as Washington rallied for a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
The Nationals were shut out for seven innings and their offense — showing why it’s the team’s biggest concern — produced only four hits. But one of them was Tracy’s shot off the partially ivy-covered (it’s still a tad too early for full bloom) wall in right field, which helped the Nationals celebrate an opening day victory.
“I just really like our club, I like it a lot, and part of the reason is because of what guys like Tracy bring to it,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Just a perfect situation . . . Tracy got the big hit.”
Among the players least likely to provide the Nationals’ late-game jolt, Tracy was at the front of the line. Last season, Tracy was so far out of Major League Baseball, he wasn’t even in the country. After his production steadily waned with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tracy hoped to revive his career in Japan. He signed with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp and played there last season.
Tracy, however, still believed he could play in the big leagues. At 31, he was running out of time to prove it. Realizing this would probably be his last chance, Tracy accepted an invitation to spring training from Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who drafted Tracy when Rizzo was the Diamondbacks’ director of scouting.
No guarantees. Just a nonroster job for Tracy during the Grapefruit League season. The Nationals took a wait-and-see approach.
They liked what they saw. Tracy got off to a slow start, which Johnson expected. During his playing career, Johnson also had returned to the majors after a stint in Japan.
It takes time to rediscover a groove against the best pitchers in the world. Also, Johnson knew Tracy would need to do more than just pinch-hit and get a few at-bats here and there to show whether he was truly capable of helping the Nationals.
The opening came when Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel suffered injuries. Johnson had more at-bats for Tracy and spots to fill on the opening 25-man roster, with Morse and Ankiel starting the season on the disabled list.
Tracy’s bat found the ball more often as spring training progressed. “He hit the heck out of the ball the last two weeks,” Johnson said.
After learning he had made the team out of spring training, Tracy focused on contributing immediately. Johnson gave him that chance in the eighth inning on Thursday.
Tracy struck out while hitting for starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg and remained in the game at first base. Despite the strikeout, his confidence remained high.
If in a similar situation later, “I expected to go up there and get a hit,” Tracy said. “I’m expecting to get a hit every time I’m up there. I know it’s not gonna happen, but you have to go up there with that mind-set.
“A few months ago, a few weeks ago, I didn’t know where I was gonna be or what I was gonna be doing. Things can change in a hurry, so that’s why you just keep grinding.”
Rizzo wasn’t surprised Tracy delivered.
“I grew up with the kid,” he said. “And I hate going back to this, but character, makeup, some ability . . . that’s the type of guys we want. And Davey knows how to use those guys. It’s good to see grinders like that get opportunities and come through.”
The Nationals will have to shuffle the 25-man roster when Morse and Ankiel return from the disabled list. But after what Tracy did during spring training and on Thursday, the Nationals plan on keeping him around.
“Tracy,” Johnson said, “ain’t going nowhere.”
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.
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