Early Saturday afternoon, Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams sat in the visiting manager’s office at Citizens Bank Park, neatening papers on his desk — a brief process that consisted of sliding a few filled-out blue lineup cards to one side.
“My God, I’ve got 16 lineups here,” said Williams, barely exaggerating. Another lineup was written on a yellow legal pad in front of him. That lineup would eventually be discarded, too.
Williams has had to be creative with his lineups lately, because injuries continue to pluck regulars from the lineup, often at the last minute. Three projected regulars, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, are on the disabled list. Three more — Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Yunel Escobar — battled injuries last week and over the weekend. In spite of it all, the Nationals won eight straight games and two out of three in Philadelphia. Given an unexpected flood of opportunities, the Nationals’ bench is producing enough to win.
“With the current state of our club, I don’t get a whole lot of enjoyment out of most things right now,” said Williams, who by the “state of our club” meant something like “all these injuries.”
“I enjoy winning, and the fact that the guys who are not our regular guys that are in the lineup right now are doing well and we’ve been able to win some games is enjoyable.”
The lineup he settled on Saturday included one projected regular, shortstop Ian Desmond. Clint Robinson batted cleanup. The outfield consisted of Robinson, Michael A. Taylor and Matt den Dekker, none of whom were expected to contribute to the Nationals when spring training began — some of whom were not even on the Nationals then. Tyler Moore was at first base, projected fill-in turned key contributor Danny Espinosa was at third. He had not played the position before this season. Dan Uggla was scheduled to play second.
“They’re our everyday guys now,” hitting coach Rick Schu said. “They’ve done a great job. When you’re pinch hitting, that one at-bat makes your day. But our guys have done a good job getting quality at-bats. Not trying too hard.”
Williams has been writing Espinosa’s name in the lineup nearly every day since Rendon was injured in spring training. He has played in 67 games, fourth most of any National. His eight home runs are fourth most among major league second baseman and second most on the team.
Taylor’s name appeared in the lineup for all but one of the team’s games this month. He has been required to fill in for Werth in left field, occasionally sliding to center when Span is hurting. He leads the Nationals with eight stolen bases, tied for fourth most among major league rookies. His 27 RBI are tied for seventh most among first-year players. He is hitting .289 in June.
“I’m feeling more part of the team,” Taylor said. “I’m still a replacement, but maybe not feeling like that so much.”
Smooth-swinging Clint Robinson played in all but six of the Nationals’ games this month and is hitting .272 this season. If you count him as an outfielder, the most unforgiving position in terms of offensive statistics, he is among the National League’s top 20 by average among those with at least 100 plate appearances. Among Nationals who have appeared in at least 50 games, he has the fourth-best average.
“I don’t think of myself — and I don’t think anybody else does — as a bench player so I’m not expecting much out of myself,” Robinson, a 30-year-old rookie, said. “We go out there and expect to succeed and the organization expects us to succeed. That’s why we’re here.”
When Zimmerman landed on the disabled list, Moore began to get more chances at first base to supplement those he was getting in the outfield and pinch hitting. He is hitting .214 this season with four home runs and has played in the 10 straight games. With more regular at-bats, he is hitting .320 in that span. Moore said it’s easy for a player to make excuses when at-bats come infrequently, to expect less production given the circumstances. He does his best not to do that.
“I’d like to have a job next year. I can’t be weak and say that type of stuff,” Moore said. “It’s tough and you can’t make that excuse because it lets your mind be weak. You got to be strong and just keep pushing.”
Schu was a utility man during his nine-year big league career, so he can pass on lessons about preparation, about the importance of “quality not quantity” for bench players’ pregame work. Teammates also laud the contributions of Uggla, a 10-year veteran who is a bench player for the first time in his career, and Reed Johnson, who is injured, as mentors for less-experienced bench players. Uggla had three hits when given a start in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader and is 4 for 13 as a pinch hitter.
“I just know that I’ve done all the work I can pregame. I’m ready, I’m loose for any kind of situation,” Uggla said. “I just strap it on and kind of say ‘Who’s better?’ Sometimes I get them, sometimes they get me, that’s about the extent of it.
Given his first start with the Nationals on Friday night, den Dekker hit a two-run homer to seal a win. He had a hit in Saturday’s rain-shortened game, too — one that didn’t count toward his official statistics. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton also had a hit in that game, one erased by the rainout, which he joked was a “nightmare,” because hits can be hard to come by in his position. Lobaton hit a 408-foot home run Sunday. He has three home runs in 63 at-bats this season.
“We go to the game and pray. We pray we can get one hit today and do something good for the team,” Lobaton said. “I know everybody knows it’s not easy, but at the same time, they [are] expecting us to do something for the team. And we try our best.”
The Nationals have scored 336 runs this season, 30 percent (99) driven in by the bench. The bench drove in 125 runs all of last year. The Nationals have scored 108 runs in June. Players originally scheduled for bench duty have driven in 38 of them. Injured though they have been, the Nationals have won 11 of their last 15 games.