CHICAGO - The Nationals didn't want to make Michael A. Taylor bat leadoff on a daily basis, and with Ben Revere about to return from the disabled list, they probably won't need to ask Taylor to do it much more.
But no matter where he bats in the Nats lineup, no matter how many or how few opportunities he gets moving forward, Taylor has to prove he can transform himself into the kind of hitter his team can trust in big spots.
Taylor found himself in one of those spots tonight during a 5-2 loss to the Cubs, and his approach and ensuing result didn't do much to suggest he's on the verge of a breakthrough.
At the plate with two men on base and nobody out in the top of the eighth of what was then a 2-0 game, Taylor had a chance to at least advance the runners 90 feet or at best drive them in and change the entire complexion of the ballgame. Instead, he struck out at the end of a five-pitch at-bat that saw Chicago reliever Pedro Strop throw only one pitch in the strike zone.
Taylor fouled that pitch (a slider that was thigh-high but on the inner third of the plate) off but then proceeded to strike out swinging at a fastball well low and inside.
"He left a slider up, I was little under it and fouled it off," he said. "I've got to shorten it up right there and put the ball in play."
The game didn't entirely ride on that one at-bat. Anthony Rendon had a chance after Taylor and grounded into a 4-6-3 double play to officially kill the rally. And there were other opportunities at the plate, on the mound and in the field for the Nationals to win the game and set the tone for this four-game showdown between the current two best teams in the National League.
But the Taylor strikeout was a key moment in this game and a microcosm of the season's first five weeks for the struggling center fielder.
"You never want to leave runners out there," Taylor said. "They came at a premium today, which makes it tough."
Dusty Baker could have elected to keep Taylor from being in a position to do that, had the manager called for a sacrifice bunt that (if successful) would have left runners on second and third with one out for Rendon, with Bryce Harper looming in the on-deck circle.
Baker explained his reasoning for letting his .186-hitting leadoff man swing away.
"If I bunt Taylor, it's not like Anthony's really killing it, either," the manager said. "Especially with men in scoring position, I took a chance - you know, he doesn't hit into that many double plays the way he can run - to try to get Harp to the plate. And then they would have to use a lefty, then use another righty and use more men in their bullpen than they wanted to. It's easy to say now, but do you play for the tie on the road, or do you play for the win? I went for the win. It didn't work."
A revelation this spring who carried a .500 batting average into the final week of play in Florida, Taylor almost immediately went ice cold once the regular season began. He was admittedly thrown into a difficult situation when Revere strained his right oblique muscle on opening day, but Taylor hasn't come close to seizing the opportunity.
Now, with Revere likely to be activated off the DL before Friday's matinee at Wrigley Field, the Nationals have to figure out what to do now with Taylor. The plan all along was to use him as their fourth outfielder, getting playing time as a fill-in for both Revere in center field and Jayson Werth in left field. But given his struggles both at the plate (a .222 on-base percentage and 32 strikeouts in 108 plate appearances) and in the field (he couldn't haul in a deep fly ball to the base of the ivy-covered wall in the fourth inning tonight) it has become fair to question whether Taylor could be ticketed for Triple-A Syracuse, where he could work through his struggles in a low-pressure environment.
The Nationals will probably make the decision in the morning, sending either Taylor or fellow outfielder Matt den Dekker to the minors to clear a spot for Revere.
"It's been kind of up and down," Baker said of Taylor's season to date. "He's been working on it; he came out early today to hit. ... Right now, it's still a work in progress. He does a lot of thing well."
"I think he's got a lot of talent; he's got a high ceiling," Werth said. "It's not easy to lead off. ... But for right now, for what our team needs, that's the role he's been given. I think he's done a great job. He's young, he's (got) a long career ahead of him. You look at what he did last year and what he's done so far this year, I think the sky's the limit."
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