Craig Heist, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - After watching his bench fail miserably for the better part of his three months after taking over as manager of the Nationals last season, one of Davey Johnson's projects in the off-season was to overhaul what he considers to be one of the most important parts of any team competing for a pennant.
So far, Johnson has to like what he has seen through 10 games, and it will be up to him to devise a plan for using his bench and figuring out roles as the season progresses.
Guys like Mark DeRosa, Chad Tracy, Xavier Nady and Steve Lombardozzi have already contributed to wins by the Nationals so far.
"My bench, to me, is as important as it has ever been. If you are going to win a pennant, 25 guys have to contribute and it has to fit. So it's not just a haphazard thing putting a bench together," Johnson said.
Johnson certainly understands that better this year because of injuries in spring training to Michael Morse, Rick Ankiel and Adam LaRoche.
"That's why this spring was advantageous for us, when we had a lot of injuries, because it gave me a chance to give more playing time to my bench. To date, we have matched up pretty good.
"(Chad) Tracy was out a whole year and needed the time to get back into baseball shape, and get his timing and as the spring went on, he got better and better. Obviously, right out of the chute, he has won us a couple of ballgames." Tracy is hitting .250 in eight games so far and he has driven in three runs including a big pinch-hit RBI single in the eighth inning of the game on April 7 against the Cubs in a 7-4 Nats victory.
Johnson wanted a more veteran presence on his bench, and Tracy certainly fits that bill along with DeRosa and Nady, all guys who have gotten it done at this level before.
"It's guys like us that you can kind of pick and choose when you want that at-bat," Tracy said.
"I think we have been around and seen a lot of these guys enough that we know how to approach it and how to prepare ourselves because it's tough when you're not in there every day seeing pitches."
There is no doubt pinch-hitting is one of the toughest things to do in the game for just that reason.
"The key is to try and trick yourself into somehow or another in the cage and through your early work or extra work to keep yourself sharp for those big situations. On Friday night, it was huge, X came up with the big home run and got us on the board and then we scratched one out late," Tracy said.
Now that Rick Ankiel is back as the regular center fielder, it will be interesting to see how Johnson maneuvers his bench and what he does with the left field situation until Morse is ready to come back.
Sunday, DeRosa played left after Nady patrolled there on Saturday. The question is how this affects Roger Bernadina long-term and just how much playing time he will get?
These are all things that will come together in time and as Johnson always tells us, the players will dictate to him who plays and who doesn't.
"Early on in my career as a manager I have kind of explained to the organizations I have come into in mid season or whatever, the only managing you do is later in the ballgame when the starters are out and it's his bench against your bullpen or your bench against his bullpen."
"It's probably one of the hardest jobs in baseball," Tracy said of managing. "I think Davey knows that, and he tries to set us up for us to succeed and put us in good situations, and that's what a good manager does."
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