NEW YORK - Dusty Baker had a logical reason for fielding a lineup entirely of backups and rookies tonight against the Mets. Given the fact the Nationals didn’t arrive in New York til 3:30 a.m. following their series finale in Atlanta, the veteran manager thought it would be a good time to let his regulars rest.
Which isn’t to say Baker is sacrificing this game. He made that perfectly clear.
“Number one, I’m not putting them in to paint,” he said. “I’m putting them in to win.”
Baker has faith in his “B” team to play well. Indeed, a similar looking lineup was good enough to beat the Phillies two weeks ago on the day the Nationals clinched their fourth division title in six years.
But there are other reasons for giving the kids playing time right now. Not the least of which is the fact that several of these guys could be competing for spots on the postseason roster.
Even if Bryce Harper returns as expected, the Nationals likely will need to carry one of their young reserve outfielders to take the spot that had been held by Brian Goodwin before the latter suffered a groin strain. (Goodwin hasn’t been ruled out for the National League Division Series, but he’s facing long odds to make it back in time.)
Thus, there very well may be a postseason roster spot for one player from a group that includes rookies Victor Robles, Andrew Stevenson and Rafael Bautista, plus journeyman Alejandro De Aza. Robles, at 20 the youngest currently active player in the majors, is starting only his third game since getting called up but continues to receive praise from those who have been keeping an eye on him.
“I watch how he interacts with other guys more than anything,” Baker said. “And he’s kind of a leader already. Even though he might be one of the youngest, I could tell how they kind of follow him. You can kind of tell who the leaders are. ... I always said captains are anointed, not appointed by me. They’re anointed by their own teammates. That’s what I notice about Robles. He’s a pretty smart young man. But he’s surrounded by some good people.”
Pedro Severino also gets a chance tonight to start and perhaps make a case to be included on the postseason roster, either as a third catcher or even as the No. 2 guy instead of struggling veteran Jose Lobaton.
There are still 10 games remaining to sort all that out. For now, Baker has one simple request from those who are taking the field tonight.
“I want to see some good fundamental play,” the manager said. “I want to see some timely hitting, some defense and hopefully some things they possibly would’ve learned here. Because I urged them to pay attention while they were sitting on the bench on how to play. And most of them were paying attention.
“I haven’t quizzed them, but I look down the bench and I can see they’re attentive and in the game. When I was their age, I learned more in the months I would come up as a September call-up almost than I did when I was playing ball. On how to play, and as importantly how not to play. There’s a lesson in that, too. I want to see hustle. And I want to see some heads-up play.”
Update: It’s been an eventful start to this game for the Nats’ “B” lineup, which has had two golden scoring opportunities in three innings and managed to make the most of one of them. They squandered their chance in the top of the second after Robert Gsellman loaded the bases with nobody out via two walks, a hit-by-pitch and a wild pitch. Adrián Sanchez and Severino each popped up, and Edwin Jackson then struck out to kill that rally. But when they had two on and one out in the third, Adam Lind stepped up and did what he’s done many times this season: Hit the ball hard a long way. Lind blasted a three-run homer to right-center, giving him 13 homers and 55 RBIs in only 284 plate appearances this season.
That homer put the Nationals up 3-1, with the Mets’ lone run coming on Travis d’Arnaud’s leadoff homer in the second off Jackson, who had surrendered eight of those in his last 11 1/3 innings. Jackson has otherwise been effective, though, and will carry a lead into the fourth.
Update II: So, a lot happened in the fifth inning. We’ll start with the top of the frame, during which time the Nationals scored three runs thanks to Howie Kendrick’s RBI double and Robles’ two-run triple. Yes, another triple for Robles, who officially has two of them in 11 major league at-bats but essentially has done it three times (he was called out after oversliding the bag on another one).
That’s the good news. The bad news: Handed a 6-1 lead when he took the mound for the bottom of the fifth, Jackson gave it all back. Three straight singles brought home two runs. And then d’Arnaud took him deep for the second time tonight, a three-run shot to left-center that left this game tied and knocked Jackson from the mound. What had been an uplifting resurrection of the veteran’s career has instead turned sour over the last few weeks.
Update III: The Nationals now trail 7-6. The tiebreaking run scored via a pair of doubles off Joe Blanton in the bottom of the sixth, including a hit to deep center by Nori Aoki that just eluded Robles’ long run from his original shallow position. The lineup will need to mount a rally against the Mets bullpen now.
Update IV: That’ll do it. Nats lose 7-6. And they may have lost Shawn Kelley to an injury. The veteran right-hander called for a trainer after throwing 17 pitches in the bottom of the eighth. It was unclear what exactly the problem was, but for Kelley to motion to the dugout himself it likely wasn’t insignificant. Stay tuned for more.