Nationals try to overcome pinch-hitting woes

Nationals try to overcome pinch-hitting woes
July 20, 2014, 1:00 pm
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There are few jobs in baseball tougher to master than pinch-hitting, so any evaluation of a player or a team's performance in that realm has to be taken with a grain of salt.

But facts are facts, and right now, Nationals pinch-hitters are among the worst in baseball.

Collectively, they are hitting .153 as pinch-hitters, which entering Sunday ranked 25th out of 30 MLB club, 14th out of 15 NL teams. And no team has struggled more off the bench over the last month or so: Nationals pinch-hitters are 0 for their last 16 and 1-for-28 with one walk since June 18.

How exactly does a team improve in that department?

"It's a difficult one," manager Matt Williams said. "Can we be better? Sure, we can be better. And they work hard every day to be better. I don't think we're alone in that. Every time we send a guy up there to pinch-hit ... we want them to do well, and they do, too. We'll just keep grinding on it."

Complicating matters is the overall lack of playing time members of the Nationals bench have been getting the last few weeks. With a healthy starting lineup finally intact, reserves Kevin Frandsen, Nate McLouth, Scott Hairston and Danny Espinosa have been given a grand total of four starts over the last 15 games, two of those a byproduct of games in Baltimore, where the DH was added to the lineup.

It's tough enough to step to the plate in the eighth or ninth inning, ice cold, and be asked to face an elite reliever. It's even tougher to do it when it's your only at-bat in days.

"It's tough, but I feel like we're some of the better pinch-hitters around, and there's a reason for it: We come prepared," said Frandsen, who ranks 11th in the majors with 7 pinch-hits this season. "I know Nate, he does the same thing, and Scotty. It's one of those things. You set your mind to that at-bat late in a game. They're going to need you. It's just a mindset. You've got to set your mind to ... yeah, you want to be ready to be called upon earlier. But late in a game, that's what we're here for."

More regular playing time might help, but Williams is reluctant to make many alterations to a starting lineup that has led the NL in runs scored since Bryce Harper returned June 30.

"It's difficult," the manager said. "We're unique in that regard. We have a lot of position players in our starting eight that play just about every day. It's hard to give them rest because they're playing so well. ... I can't argue with having Wilson Ramos hitting eighth for us. I can't argue with that. That's a comforting feeling, to know that we have multiple guys in our lineup that are generally middle-of-the-order guys, that generally play just about every day. It limits the time the guys on the bench have for reps. So that's a hard one.

"It's a difficult one to deal with, because you want to give guys opportunities and keep them sharp, so when they do step up there they've got rhythm and timing. And they've just had a few at-bats recently. It's not like jumping back in the fire again."

The situation may not be ideal, but Nationals reserves aren't griping about their lack of playing time.

"We know what we signed up for: Being a vital part of the bench," Frandsen said. "And right now, being a vital part of the bench means being the best teammate possible, being there and supportive and busting your butt to be ready for that opportunity if it comes. And if it comes, it does. If it doesn't, I don't mind it because we're winning. Winning is literally the only thing. It sounds like a cliche, but it is. It's the only thing we want."