CHICAGO — Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson spent much of his half-season in the Nationals’ dugout last year lamenting the configuration of his bench. It didn’t have enough pop, he felt. It didn’t give him the late-game advantages against the other team’s pitching staff that he so craved.
So the Nationals brought a different mix of players to camp this spring to compete for those spots. And Johnson played them almost every single day — the result of a combination of injuries to his regulars and a desire to see what he had. But what it did allow was for the men who’d ultimately make his bench, Mark DeRosa, Steve Lombardozzi, Brett Carroll, Jesus Flores and Chad Tracy, to get enough at-bats in the spring to find their swing.
When Tracy stepped to the plate in the ninth inning Thursday with two outs and ripped a double so far to right field that on any other day, in any other wind, it was a surefire home run, he did something the Nationals’ 2011 bench rarely did: produced. Carroll came out to pinch run for Tracy and as the veteran made his way back to the dugout, moments before Ian Desmond would slap a single to right field to score Carroll as the winning run, Johnson pulled him aside.
“I told him, ‘You’re the second guy to come back from Japan and make an impact in the major leagues,’” Johnson said on his way into the cramped visitors clubhouse at Wrigley Field.
“I was the first.”
Johnson played two seasons for Yomiuri in Japan from 1975-1976 when he was close in age to Tracy, and returned for the 1977 season in which he hit .321 with a .408 on-base percentage as a bench player with the Philadelphia Phillies.
So he was well aware of the range of emotions Tracy may have been going through this past week as he went form a non-roster invitee and long-shot for the 25-man roster to a part of the Nationals’ Opening Day bench. And he rewarded their selection with a big hit Thursday.
“Just a perfect situation,” Johnson said. “Tracy got the big hit. It was just a great day.”
“There’s not anybody in here I was pulling more for this spring than Chad Tracy,” said Desmond, who accounted for the Nationals’ only three other hits on the day.
“He made every single bus trip. He played every game. He really grinded and he earned it. For him to get that hit there, it speaks volumes about his character. I keep on saying it, but (Nationals GM Mike) Rizzo brings in character guys and quality players that want to win. And that’s a perfect example right there.”
Rizzo knows Tracy well, having drafted him when he was with the Diamondbacks in the seventh round of the 2001 draft. He knew all of that when he brought him in, but it was Tracy’s play — coupled with injuries — that put him where he was on Thursday.
He’d pinch hit for Stephen Strasburg at the start of the eighth inning and watched from the bench as his teammates worked Kerry Wood enough to squeeze out three straight walks — including one with the bases loaded — to tie the game.
When he came to the plate in the ninth, having seen the wind kill ball after ball all day, he was thinking “stay out of the air. At least you have a shot if it’s on the ground.”
That plan kind of backfired, eh Chad?
“Well, you know, end up barreling a slider and it had just enough legs to get over his head. Probably on a normal day, it would have been a home run, too. At that point in the game, I didn’t care. as long as we got a chance to win the ballgame.”
Monday afternoon in the visitors clubhouse at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Tracy reflected on the journey he’d taken in the past year. He called the news that he’d be on the Nationals’ Opening Day roster “emotional” and admitted that, while playing 2011 in Japan, he wondered if he’d ever make it back to the major leagues.
Asked if he had any of those same thoughts on Thursday, Tracy was frank. The time for reflection has passed and now it’s about playing the game and helping the team.
“Now,” he said, “I’m on the team.
“Emotions during the game go up and down but as far as being emotional about making it, now it’s more toward being successful. Getting in a routine and having a plan any time you go up to the plate. I was expecting to get hits every time you get up there. It is pretty special, Opening Day, to help your team win a ballgame. I feel like this is where belong and I expect to do well.”