The Washington Times - March 2, 2011, 05:33PM

VIERA, Fla.

Matt Stairs should carry his bat in a violin case. His, after all, is such a refined skill – Professional Pinch Hitter – and the lumber he lugs to the plate is like his own personal Stradivarius.

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Let’s face it, coming off the bench against some flame-throwing reliever and changing the course of a game is much more than a talent; it’s an art. And few have done it better than the stocky, scruffy Stairs. The well-traveled 43-year-old, who’s in camp with the Nationals, has hit more pinch homers than any man in baseball history – 23 and counting.

The details of each are readily retrievable from the safety-deposit box of his memory. Mention his first game-winner, off Yankees side-armer Jeff Nelson in 1996, and he says, “Mickey Mantle Day. [That is, the day Mantle’s monument was unveiled at the stadium.] Threw me a sinker away.”

Bring up the grand slam he slugged to beat the Giants and Steve Reed in ’98 and he says, “The ball got stuck between the two fences at Candlestick.”

Remind him of his granny against the Nats’ Zack Segovia two years ago and he says, “My first hit in two months.” (He wasn’t kidding, either. It had been exactly 60 days – and 30 at bats – since he’d reached safely.)

Such is life for a pinch-hitter. When you only get up once a night, you can have dry spells bordering on dehydration. You have to be tough-minded to fight through them, just as you have to be tough-minded to step in in a pressure situation and make an impact. Stairs has been doing it for 18 seasons – and would be perfectly happy to keep doing it as long as someone will let him.

Someone always has. His career, in fact, has been like a Matt Stairs Across America tour. The Nats are his 13th major-league team, a record for a position player. He’s played for 17 managers, worn nine different numbers. During one five-year stretch, he changed clubs every year (A’s, Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, Royals).

“People probably wondered if I was a bad guy or something,” he said Wednesday before an 8-4 exhibition victory over the Marlins, “but it wasn’t that. And it wasn’t because I had bad years. It was a case of teams getting what they expected out of a guy [on a one-year contract] and not wanting to pay him more the next year.”

The result of all this club-hopping is that every time he goes on the road now, “it’s like a family reunion.” Former teammates are scattered all over the majors. And of course, he’s played in many of these places, so he never has to ask anybody for a restaurant recommendation. Now that he’s with the Nationals, it’s like he’s come full circle – inasmuch as he broke in with Montreal Expos, the Nats’ progenitors, in 1989.

“He brings a lot of things to our team,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “First of all, he’s a threat – an experienced left-handed batter. I was in the other dugout many times when he came up to the plate [as a pinch hitter]. He makes you think what you’re going to do with your bullpen. Sometimes he makes you take out a guy when you don’t want to and put in [a southpaw] to pitch to him.”

One of those times was in the 2004 season opener, when he was with Kansas City. The White Sox had a 7-4 lead and were trying to close it out with Billy Koch; but when Stairs was announced as a pinch hitter, Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen signaled for the lefty, Damaso Marte.

Royals skipper Tony Pena countered by sending up right-handed swinging Mendy Lopez, who proceeded to smack a three-run homer to tie it up. KC won, 9-7.

“I get burned a lot like that,” Stairs said. “They’ll bring in a left-hander, and I won’t even get to hit. It cost them that time, though.”

His is an unusual existence, one in which the dugout is more like a waiting room. Until a few years ago he was good for at least 400 at bats a season – he’s belted 242 other homers, you’ll be pleased to know, that weren’t pinch hits – but his opportunities are much more limited now.

Which is fine by him. “I’m a pinch hitter,” he said. “I love pinch hitting. I’m not sitting on the bench thinking: Why aren’t I playing today? Last year with the Padres I started a game, had a two-run double and a diving catch [in left field] that made the ESPN Top 5, and they took me out in the fifth inning when the other team put in a lefty. I made ESPN, and they took me out!”

Stairs isn’t one of these pinch hitters who, as the game unfolds, lives in the batting cage or the video room. With him, less has always been more. He’ll get plenty of swings in BP, but then he’ll save himself for The Moment. When the manager gives him the nod, he’ll grab a bat, take a few cuts and jump in the box. Unorthodox to say the least, but you can’t argue with 23 homers.

Riggleman sees him as more than just a late-inning savior. He sees him as a Walking Archive of Hitting Knowledge – and someone who can mentor the Nationals’ younger players. Indeed, that’s what Stairs hopes to do once his playing days are over: coach, possibly even manage.

But now he’s just trying to nail down a roster spot. He’s begun, in his old age, to pay more attention to conditioning, dropping nearly 40 pounds last year on the Nutrisystem diet. He’s put a few of them back – convinced he wasn’t quite strong enough at 193 – but he’s still fitter than he used to be. Way fitter.

“I actually have two abs now instead of one,” he said.

MATT STAIRS’ MOST NOTABLE PINCH HOMERS

April 5, 1996 for A’s vs. Tigers – His second major-league home run … and first as a pinch-hitter. Jacked a three-run shot off Mike Christopher in the eighth inning of a 13-2 win.

August 25, 1996 for A’s vs. Yankees – His first game-winner (at Yankee Stadium, no less). Led off the ninth against Jeff Nelson and socked a 2-1 pitch into the seats to give Oakland a 5-4 lead.

June 4, 1998 for A’s vs. Giants – The first of his two grand slams. His team was trailing 4-3 in the eighth when he went yard at the expense of Steve Reed. Oakland hung on for a 7-6 victory.

August 30, 2002 for Brewers vs. Reds – Tied it 4-4 in the eighth with a solo blast off Ryan Dempster, a prelude to a five-run Milwaukee ninth.

June 27, 2006 for Royals vs. Reds – Touched Todd Coffey for a two-run homer in the ninth to put Kansas City ahead to stay, 9-7.

Oct. 13, 2008 for Phillies vs. Dodgers (NLCS, Game 4) – Drove a Jonathan Broxton fastball far into the night with a man aboard to cap an eighth-inning rally and seal a 7-5 win. The Phils closed out the Dodgers in the next game and went on to take the World Series.

April 12, 2009 for Phillies vs. Rockies – Victimized closer Huston Street for the second straight year, snapping a 5-5 tie with a two-run dinger in the ninth.

Sept. 10, 2009 for Phillies vs. Nationals – Grand slam No. 2. Connected off Zack Segovia in the ninth to turn an 8-2 game into a nail-biter. Philadelphia added another run, but Ron Villone got the last two outs to rescue the Nats.