Meneses embraces role as Nats' top run producer

TORONTO – Early this season, when the prospect of hitting a home run felt like the toughest challenge in the world, Joey Meneses tried to remember there were other ways to be a productive offensive player.

“We talked a lot the beginning of the year about him wanting to hit more home runs,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “But I told him: ‘Look, you’re driving in runs, and that’s really important. The home runs will come.’ Which they did. But more so than that, he’s become that clutch RBI guy for us.”

The homers did come in a brief spurt earlier this summer, with Meneses hitting nine of his 11 in a 26-game span from July 7-Aug. 8. But for the most part, the 31-year-old designated hitter has needed to turn to a different skill to feel like he’s fully contributing to the team’s cause: Driving runners in from scoring position.

Meneses continues to excel in that department, and he was up to his old tricks again Monday night, delivering an RBI single in the first and a two-run double in the fifth to account for all of the Nats’ runs during a 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays.

Those were the Nationals’ only two hits in 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position, a frustrating fact about a frustrating loss. But it was merely a continuation of the job Meneses has been doing all season, even when he’s not hitting for power.

Meneses now owns a .367 batting average with runners in scoring position, going 51-for-139. That’s tied with teammate Keibert Ruiz (36-for-98) for the seventh-best average in those situations among all qualifying major leaguers.

“I’m obviously very happy with the fact that this season I am able to do the job with runners in scoring position,” he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I feel like I try to do that year in and year out, and work at when I do get those opportunities, to take advantage of them. I’m very happy this year things have come my way.”

Monday’s pair of clutch hits provided a perfect example of Meneses’ approach when he steps to the plate with runners on second and/or third. He singled up the middle in the top of the first, scoring CJ Abrams from second. Then he doubled down the first base line in the top of the fifth, scoring both Abrams from third and Lane Thomas from second.

Sure, a drive to deep left field would be nice. But if the pitcher isn’t giving you something to drive to the pull side, a two-run hit to the opposite field will more than suffice.

“The best thing about Joey is he stays in the middle of the field,” Martinez said. “Base hit up the middle. Goes the other way, two big RBIs for us. He’s done great.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Meneses to embrace this approach. As much he likes to drive in runs, he’d really like to drive himself in a lot more. If there’s one stat that encapsulates his at-times frustration dilemma, Meneses has by far the fewest homers of any National League hitter with at least 65 RBI this season.

Over time, though, he has come to recognize the importance of this particular skill-set of his.

“I think now he understands that run production is big, and he says: ‘I’m going to do everything I can to drive in runs,’” Martinez said. “When he doesn’t do it, I see more frustration than anything. He knows he has a job to do up there when we’ve got guys in scoring position, and he’s been really good at it.”

Overall, Meneses now has 76 RBIs on the season, 18th most in the NL. He’s currently on pace for 93 come season’s end. And he’s got a semi-reasonable shot at reaching the century mark. If he can drive in 24 more runs over the final 30 games, he’ll get to 100 total.

Wouldn’t that be something, especially if he doesn’t experience a September power surge? There hasn’t been a big leaguer with 100-plus RBIs but fewer than 20 homers in a season since 2013, when the Reds’ Brandon Phillips drove in 103 runs with only 18 homers.

If that’s what it comes to, Meneses will happily solidify his growing reputation as one of the majors’ best clutch hitters and RBI machines.

“I would love to be hitting home runs, but despite that, I am very happy with how I’m hitting with runners in scoring position,” he said. “Hopefully the home runs will continue at some point to come, because I do look to hit them. But so far, I’m very happy this season the way things are going with runners in scoring position.”

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