Chronic worrier Meneses can only hope big weekend jumpstarts season

Joey Meneses is by nature a worrier. It probably comes from the decade he spent in the minor leagues, bouncing around between organizations, even venturing to Japan at one point to try to keep his career alive.

After finally breaking through in 2022 with two out-of-nowhere months of MVP-level production as a 30-year-old rookie with the Nationals, he still reported to camp the following spring worried he might not make the team. And even after driving in a team-high 89 RBIs in 2023, he still wasn’t sure about his future here after the Nats signed slugger Joey Gallo over the winter and invited top prospects Dylan Crews and James Wood to big league camp.

So imagine the thoughts swirling though Meneses’ mind as he came up to bat in the bottom of the 10th early Saturday evening, his batting average in the .180s, his slugging percentage barely topping .200, having already failed to come through in big spots in the sixth and eighth innings. Was the clock nearing midnight on his fairy tale, with a demotion to Triple-A looming in the near future?

Then watch Meneses’ reaction to his game-winning hit: a first-pitch gap shot to right-center that easily scored pinch-runner Nasim Nunez to beat the Astros. As he approached second base, he flung his helmet aside, spread out his arms and waited for his teammates to mob him. For the first time in a while, the smile on his face was wide.

“Like you said, I’ve been battling and struggling to start the season,” he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “But this kind of at-bat and situation kind of relaxes me. And obviously I’m excited about it.”

One clutch hit, of course, does not end a slump on its own. Meneses’ walk-off was great in the moment but wouldn’t matter much in the big picture if it didn’t lead to sustained success.

So now consider Meneses’ fifth-inning hit Sunday afternoon: a bases-loaded, opposite-field single that scored two runs to extend the Nats’ lead during what wound up a 6-0 victory over Houston.

That’s now five hits in his last nine at-bats, raising his batting average more than 50 points in the span of 24 hours. And after driving in only two runs in his first 12 games of the season, he now has six RBIs in his last five.

“That was awesome. Hopefully that gets him going,” manager Davey Martinez said Saturday. “He had a couple hits today. Hopefully we’ll get him going now and he’ll start driving in the runs we need.”

Meneses has never really been part of the Nationals’ long-term plan. With Crews, Wood and others coming soon, the team isn’t about to prioritize a soon-to-be 32-year-old designated hitter who doesn’t hit a lot of home runs.

But he remains an important part of this transitional phase for the organization. And who knows, because he’s not even arbitration-eligible until 2026 and can’t become a free agent until 2029, he might just remain an extremely affordable complementary piece for a while longer.

Meneses, though, is never going to be considered a sure thing. He’s going to have to keep proving himself over and over. And he’s probably not going to be given the same benefit of the doubt someone who arrived on a more conventional path will get.

Hence, his worrying nature, something his manager has tried to soothe.

“He’s really been frustrated,” Martinez said. “He feels like he’s letting us down, and he’s not. I tell him all the time: ‘This game’s not easy. You’re going to go through struggles. We’ve got to try to get you out of it.’”

After blasting 13 homers in only 56 games following his August 2022 call-up, Meneses saw his power stroke disappear last season while reaching that same 13-homer total in 154 games. He has yet to clear the fence this season.

What Martinez is trying to impart on Meneses, though, is to embrace his true strength as a hitter. His natural stroke is to right-center, not left field. He’s a singles and doubles guy, not a home run-first guy. It’s how he hit a whopping .363 with runners in scoring position last season.

“I know the emphasis has been for him to go out and try to hit home runs,” Martinez said after Saturday’s game. “Hey, those are awesome. You’ll hit some home runs. But stay in the middle of the field. And today … he came through when we needed him to come through most. And I’ve seen him do that plenty. I hope that last hit, the game-winner, really opens his eyes and he understands who he is and what he needs to do. Let’s get back to that.”

Meneses tried to take that mindset to the plate with him with the game on the line this weekend. Even as his mind was preoccupied with potential worst-case scenarios if he didn’t come through.

“All those thoughts run through your head. It’s hard not to,” he said. “But in that particular moment, I was just trying to focus on getting a good pitch and taking a good swing at that at-bat. Because if you keep thinking about everything, it’s overwhelming.”

To be sure, Meneses is not cured. He’s only batting .234. He’s only slugging .250. He still owns only one extra-base hit in 2024.

It’s going to take a lot more hits like the ones he produced this weekend to finally get his season on track. And until that happens, he’s going to have to keep fighting his inner monologue and block out the worry that’s always there.

“I try to erase all of that, put everything behind me,” he said. “Every at-bat I take, I try to feel like it’s a fresh start. Just focus on that at-bat and not let the previous at-bats affect me.”

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