Marty Niland: Veterans, bench finally getting into the swing of things

It’s not conventional wisdom for a major league team to “get healthy” on the road, and even less conventional for it to happen against a hot team, but that’s just what seems to have happened to the Nationals as they wrapped up their 4-3 road trip.

In Pittsburgh, where the Nats have not won a series since 2010, the Nats took two games from a Pirates team that had won six of nine, including a series win over St. Louis. And they did it behind several players whose contributions this season so far have been minimal at best: Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina.

Zimmerman was hitting just .226 when he went on the disabled list in mid-April, and aside from a four-RBI game in Miami, had not been a factor in the offense so far this season. But after striking out four times on Friday against A.J. Burnett, he found his stroke as well as some plate discipline. He reached base six times in the next two games, including three walks, and scored five runs, almost doubling his total from the entire month of April. His first career steal of third base in the ninth inning Saturday -after being drilled in the knee by a pitch - led to the winning run.

La Roche was the coldest hitter in the lineup when the road trip started at .136 and was 2-for-27 after going 0-for-4 in the second and third games of the Atlanta series. But after meeting with his friend, Chipper Jones, LaRoche began making good contact and finally broke out of the slump with a 1-for-3 game on Thursday that started a modest four-game hitting streak. He joined Zimmerman in adding some plate discipline to his habits, reaching base eight times in the Pittsburgh series. He drove in his first run since April 20 on Saturday, plating Zimmerman with a sacrifice fly. By the time he came to bat in the eighth inning Sunday, the Pirates were afraid to pitch to him, intentionally walking him to get to Moore.

Espinosa, too, seemed lost at the plate as the road trip began, hitting just .178, and although he got a hit in the series opener against Atlanta, he was benched after going 0-for-4 Tuesday. After clearing his head for two games and watching Steve Lombardozzi get a hit in the final game against Atlanta, Espinosa was one of the few successful hitters against Burnett, and wound up with a hit in every game against Pittsburgh, including a two-run homer in the fourth inning Sunday that put the Nats ahead 3-1.

Moore had exemplified the Nats’ bench woes so far this season, hitting just .179 coming into the Pittsburgh series and playing poorly in the field. But forced into the lineup by Jayson Werth’s ankle and hamstring injuries, he was forced to practice the two traits that make a bench player successful: patience and perseverance. The Pirates basically had their way with Moore for the first two games of the series, except when the game was truly on the line. Having struck out twice with men in scoring position on Saturday, he managed his most productive out of the season, driving in Zimmerman from third with a sacrifice fly for the winning run. On Sunday, after striking out three more times, twice with men on base, and watching the Pirates walk LaRoche to get to him, he made them pay with his first homer of the season, a three-run shot that put the game out if reach.

Bernadina was also pressed into service Saturday to give Denard Span a rest, and on Sunday by Bryce Harper’s ejection. His bat, too, was slumping. But “The Shark” found another way to help the team, by running down Russell Martin’s ninth-inning hit on Saturday and throwing him out at second he tried to take an extra base. Then, on Sunday, his patience was rewarded when he dropped a bunt single down in the eighth and scored on Moore’s homer, then singled again in the ninth. In between, he had another defensive gem with his diving catch of Martin’s liner to end the eighth.

This road trip did not cure everything that’s wrong with the Nationals. Among other problems, they are still striking out too often, especially with bats on their shoulders, and opposing pitchers aren’t exactly shaking when Washington pinch hitters come to the plate. But it’s encouraging to see the veteran hitters get back on track and two key bench players shake off slumps as the Detroit Tigers bring their potent lineup and fearsome pitching staff to town.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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