Nationals bench driven to continue collective success

PHILADEPHIA - It is, most agree, the toughest job in baseball. Come off the bench cold late in a game, to face a reliever probably throwing at least 95 mph, in a big spot that figures to dramatically affect whether your team wins or loses.

Pinch-hitting is not for the faint of heart, which is why the Nationals are grateful to have assembled a particularly effective group of bench players who have more than done their part to help this team get off to a 33-21 start this season.

"The main thing is, these guys come ready to play," manager Dusty Baker said.

And because of that, they come ready to drive the ball out of the park. The Nationals already have eight pinch-hit home runs this season. That matches the club record for an entire season (set way back in 2006) and already is more than halfway to baseball's all-time record of 14 (set by both the Diamondbacks and Giants in 2001).

Nationals pinch-hitters' .986 OPS is only 20 points shy of the best mark ever record over a full season (1.006 by the 2000 Rangers). And only two National League teams (which compile far more pinch-hitting at-bats than American League teams) have ever maintained a pinch-hitting OPS of better than.900 for an entire season: the 1958 Phillies (.911) and 1995 Rockies (.941).

So what has allowed this group to do that?

"I think it's just that we have talented players," Clint Robinson said. "Guys that are capable of starting if given the chance and have done it in the past. I think it's just a talented group. It's guys knowing their role and focusing on when they're called to do it. Guys who've got a lot of nerve, a lot of focus."

Robinson is one of the holdovers from last year's bench, which has since added outfielder Chris Heisey and infielder Stephen Drew. Outfielder Michael A. Taylor and backup catcher Jose Lobaton round out the regular bench this season, though outfielder Matt den Dekker chipped in before being optioned to Triple-A Syracuse a few weeks ago.

They don't necessarily hit for a high average (only .246 through Wednesday's game) but these things have to be evaluated on a sliding scale. The major league average for pinch-hitters is just .222, with a .664 OPS, underscoring just how difficult it is to succeed in the role.

Members of the Nationals bench point to several factors to explain their success. One is the fact that Baker makes a concerted effort to give each of them regular opportunities to start a game and compile three or four at-bats at a time.

chris-heisey-walk-off-white.jpg"If you don't have any reps, it is tough to stay fresh," said Heisey, who was a successful pinch-hitter for Baker in Cincinnati earlier in his career. "So getting a spot start once or so a week, it's big. You're not just sitting there for four, five, six days without any at-bats, and then you suddenly have a big pinch-hit at-bat. He's always done a good job getting his bench guys playing time. I mean, it's helped my career to get those starts."

These reserves also put in more than their share of work, on and off the field, to prepare for the task at hand.

"I think everybody just works hard and has a good idea," said Drew, a longtime everyday shortstop in the big leagues now in his first full season as a bench player. "The guys that play every day, we just try to pick those guys up, whether it be with the bat or in the field. I think we've been able to contribute somehow, some way, which is really key for a long season."

Different guys have different preferred methods of in-game preparation, but the Nationals offer everything they could want to get themselves ready when the time comes.

During the course of a game, the club has two batting practice pitchers (one right-handed, one left-handed) available in the cage, throwing not just fastballs but breaking balls and changeups as they try to simulate scenarios the hitter might face in the game.

"The setup we have here is amazing," Heisey said. "Two guys in the batting cage, a right-handed and a left-handed batting practice pitcher, during the game to get loose. Which I'd never seen before anyplace I've been. That's been really big. They'll do game situations, throw breaking balls, changeups. So you're ready to go when you get out on the field, and that's pretty special to have that. I've never seen that before."

The assemblage of this particular bench also was important to Baker and his coaching staff, recognizing the need to have the right balance of players available for whatever situation might arise.

"Our guys take pride in being a good bench, which is why we tried to come up with the best bench we had available in spring training," Baker said. "There were some guys that realistically could have made this club, but we thought these guys were better suited to fit the puzzle."

Above all else, this is a close-knit group. They take batting practice together. They hang out in the clubhouse together. They sit in the dugout together. And they celebrate each other's success together.

"You really have to be, because we spend every night on the bench together," Robinson said. "We're constantly bouncing ideas off each other, trying to help each other prepare and think along with the game. We've learned the way Dusty likes to do things, and that can keep us in the game and think along with him."

And as the season has played out, they've started to think of themselves less as individuals and more as a collective group capable of being the best in the sport.

As good as the Nationals bench has been to date, there's still one other team getting even more production from its reserves: the Cardinals, whose pinch-hitters have 10 homers and an astounding .372 batting average.

The challenge has been established.

"I mean, we're cheering for the starters, too. But we're really cheering for the bench guys to do well when they get the chance," Heisey said. "We heard the Cardinals had really good pinch-hitting numbers, but we're right up there with them. We kind of start to compete a little bit. We want everyone to do well when they get in there, so our collective numbers are good."

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