NEW YORK - On normal days, 14 or 15 players from the Nationals' 25-man roster might get into a game, depending on pinch-hit situations, defensive replacements and how many relievers are needed to finish a game.
Wins typically require fewer players, for obvious reasons; starters pitch more innings, position players are feeling comfortable through most of the game. In short, there are fewer things to fix.
The Nationals had won three games this season before Sunday, and they hadn't used more than 16 players in any of them. On Sunday, they used 18. But Sunday's 7-3 win over the Mets wasn't a normal one.
Sunday began with the news that Ryan Zimmerman would need to sit and rest the abdominal strain he's been playing with since spring training. The Nationals were noncommittal about when the third baseman would play again, and Zimmerman talked about it for 58 seconds after the game, giving clipped answers that revealed little. "It feels bad enough not to play today," Zimmerman said. Asked how worried he is about it, he said, "I don't know." He'll be re-evaluated before Tuesday's game, and it seems likely he'll miss some time.
By the 11th inning of Sunday's game, after the Nationals had battled back from a 3-1 deficit and were on the verge of taking the lead, they'd lost first baseman Adam LaRoche. Already playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, LaRoche strained his groin sliding into second base. Wilson Ramos was called upon to pinch run for him, with Ivan Rodriguez shifting from catcher to finish the game at first base, where he hadn't played since 2005.
And the play that took LaRoche out of the game? A sacrifice bunt from pinch hitter Jordan Zimmermann - who wasn't supposed to play again until he pitches Thursday, but got called on to pinch hit because he was the pitcher most likely to beat out a double play if he hit into one.
The Nationals were dusting off emergency scenarios they didn't expect to use until August, if at all. And yet, they won.
"The great thing about this team is the moves they made to get veteran guys on the bench who know their role," said starter Jason Marquis, who allowed three runs in six innings. "They've put together a good 25 guys here, and everybody's going to chip in to whatever it takes to win."
There's been a fair amount of consternation early this year about the bench the Nationals put together, which prioritized older players at the expense of young athletes like outfielder Roger Bernadina. On days Ramos starts at catcher, the average age of the Nationals' bench is 36 years, five months. It's on days like these, though, where it becomes clear why those players are on the roster.
Alex Cora made a handful of impressive plays in Zimmerman's place at third. Matt Stairs drew a walk for the fourth time in six plate appearances. Jerry Hairston Jr. pinch-ran for him, scored a run and finished the game at third. Rodriguez doubled and scored in the eighth, added a sacrifice bunt in the ninth and drove in the go-ahead run in the 11th. And Laynce Nix - who beat out Bernadina for the final spot on the roster - split the game open with a three-run homer in the 11th.
Nothing about the group jives with the Nationals' talk about a speed-and-athleticism approach, but they bring something else. All five have played in a postseason. Four have championship rings. Most have learned how to pinch hit on the seventh day of a three-city road trip; Stairs might be the most decorated pinch hitter in the game's history. The Nationals planned to put the lockers of infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa near Cora's and Hairston's so as much knowledge would flow from veterans to youngsters as possible. Most of their skill sets are replaceable, but in general manager Mike Rizzo's eyes, their experience is not.
"(The win) is a credit to Mike (Rizzo), the bench he put together," manager Jim Riggleman said. "It's showed up here lately. Cora's done a good job. Jerry's very versatile. The threat of Stairs there, he's drawn a bunch of walks, kept some innings going, and Nix has done what he's done. Those were good additions that Mike made."
It could be those additions only get the Nationals through the first part of the year, if their play on the field is a bigger detriment than their ability to rub off on younger players is a benefit. But on Sunday, when the Nationals pulled out one of their most resourceful wins, their grizzled reserves proved their worth.
"It hopefully puts the starting lineup at ease, and the staff too, to know we can trust guys (off the bench)," Nix said. "It makes it tough on the other teams, facing their relievers, and having guys comfortable at the plate."