Breaking down the bench blues

As productive as the Nationals bench was last season - with Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi coming through with countless pinch-hits in clutch spots and getting significant playing time in the place of a few injured starters - that group has been pretty quiet through the first six weeks of the 2013 campaign.

In 51 pinch-hit opportunities this season, Nationals hitters have gone just 7-of-48 with two extra-base hits and three walks. That’s good for a .146 batting average, .196 on-base percentage and .208 slugging percentage.

Not great.

Even outside of their chances as pinch-hitters, the Nats’ bench players have largely struggled. Bernadina is batting .103 in 39 overall at-bats this season. Tracy is hitting .139 in 36 at-bats. Moore has a home run and eight RBIs, but his average is still just .157, and Lombardozzi is the best of the bunch through 37 games, hitting .228.

The inconsistent playing time isn’t easy for players to deal with, especially when you’re talking about younger players that are used to being in the starting lineup on an everyday basis and that haven’t necessarily settled into life as a major leaguer yet.

While Tracy is a little further removed from his days of getting 500-plus at-bats in a season and Bernadina has spent nearly all of the last four seasons in the majors, Moore and Lombardozzi are still adjusting to the inconsistent workload that comes along with being a bench player at the major league level.

Manager Davey Johnson will tell you that’s not a simple adjustment.

“It’s very difficult,” Johnson said. “You’re still learning about the umpires in the league, the background in ballparks, how they’re going to pitch you, what kind of book they have on you. And then you can’t just go up there as a pinch-hitter like you’re a starter and going to get three or four at-bats, take a couple pitches and scope a guy out. You need to know what you’re looking for, go up there and look for it and when you get it, hit it. It takes a while to learn that.”

Speaking then to Moore specifically, Johnson added: “He’ll work his way out of it, because he’s got such a great stroke and he’s smart and strong. But I hate putting him through that.”

Johnson has experience as a bench player; he was used as a utility infielder and pinch-hitter for much of his last three years in the majors. He knows that guys need to approach pinch-hitting and spot-starts differently than they would stretches where they know they’ll be in the lineup for an extended period, but that’s something that he says was easier for him to pick up on because he was already an established big leaguer.

The Nats’ skipper prefers not to use younger players in bench roles because they don’t have that knowledge yet. But that’s something he tries to preach to Moore, Lombardozzi and even Bernadina.

“It’s not an easy job,” Johnson said. “When I did it the latter part of my major league playing career, it was easy because I knew what I can do, and I knew what they wanted to do to me to keep me from doing it. And I knew they were gonna mess up and have to give me my pitch. And (then) it’s easy. But that’s because of experience. ...

“It’s controlling those emotions. That’s the tough part. Knowing the situation. Knowing that guy out there (the pitcher) is in the jam, not you.”

Some might wonder whether the Nationals would be better suited letting Moore and/or Lombardozzi play every day at Triple-A Syracuse, where they could see more pitching and continue to fine-tune their games. But Johnson says despite their lack of experience in their current roles, Moore and Lombardozzi have shown that they can help the big league team in multiple ways now.

“They’re still more invaluable doing it,” Johnson said. “And if their role needed to be expanded, we couldn’t find anybody to be anywhere close to (them). A veteran might be able to do a little better job in the immediate time, but not in the long haul.”

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