CHICAGO — The Washington Nationals’ 11-6 victory over the Chicago Cubs had been over for several minutes by the time Scott Hairston finally found his way through the winding hallway back to the visitors’ clubhouse Wednesday night. The music was already pumping through the practically ancient walls by that point, his teammates celebrating a victory won on his bat — against the team that’d traded him away just six weeks ago.
As he walked through, readying to join in on enjoying his pinch-hit three-run homer that broke a 6-6 tie and saved the Nationals from a potentially ugly loss, his manager caught sight of him.
“Atta boy, Scotty,” Davey Johnson said, his eyes alight as he congratulated his player. “That was a little payback.”
“Yeah,” the reserved, polite Hairston said with a smile. “That felt good.”
Pinch hitting in Wrigley Field is no simple task. The batting cage, disguised behind an Under Armour logo on a garage door, is hidden within the ivy-covered right field wall. It’s off-limits to players during the game, of course, as you’d need to walk through right field to get to it.
It’s a challenge just to stay loose, in a cramped dugout and small clubhouse. There’s one weight room, and it’s on the Cubs’ side of the ballpark, and one lonely stationary bike parked in the far end of the visitors’ clubhouse, adjacent to the kitchen.
So, even as the Nationals were building a five-run lead on the back of Jayson Werth’s 18th home run of the season — also a three-run shot — Hairston moved around. He stretched, rode the bike, and followed along with the game.
A five-run fifth came and went, Tanner Roark and Ross Ohlendorf combined to let the Cubs come all the way back and tie it in sending 10 batters to the plate in the inning. And Hairston figured he’d be called upon soon.
“I think mainly you have to be mentally focused in that situation,” Hairston said. “And prepared to come in and do your job.”
When the top of the seventh inning began, and the Cubs turned to left-hander James Russell, Hairston sidled up to Johnson
“He’s a smart, veteran type player and he’s gotten a lot of big hits in the past,” Johnson said. “That’s his role. He goes right up there and that was fun to watch. I know he wants to show those guys what they’re missing, and he did a heck of a job. He hasn’t really got big hits for us in the pinch-hit role, but that certainly makes up for anything he hasn’t done in the past. That was big.”
The Nationals acquired Hairston in early July to hit lefties, and in his limited time with them, he’s done it. In 27 at-bats against left-handed pitchers with the Nationals, Hairston now has more than half as many hits (8) as he had against left-handed batters with the Cubs (14) — and he had 78 such at-bats during his three months with them this season.
But as a pinch-hitter, he was 1-for-10. The Cubs decided they’d rather go after him, than the scorching hot Werth again, and he fought Russell for four pitches. Three of them were changeups, and Hairston knew he would come with it again. He adjusted his stance, reminding himself to keep his weight back, and uncorked his swing just as Russell’s 80-mph offering came in.
A fan in the last row of the left field bleachers went scampering for it as Bryce Harper, Werth and Hairston circled the bases.
“It’s the stuff that you dream about as a kid, especially when the batter in front of you gets walked,” said Hairston, who was ushered into the dugout amidst a sea of ‘Atta boy’s’ and high-fives. “There’s a little pride as a hitter. You want to stick it to that team, so to speak, when you walk the guy ahead of you. I kind of take that personal. I just wanted to make sure I did my job and it worked out tonight.”
The Nationals continued to add to their lead in the eighth. When all was said and done they’d regained the five run lead that had slipped away from them in the fifth, when Ohlendorf tired and Roark’s adrenaline from pitching in the ballpark he grew up watching from the stands in conspired.
But for a team that has come back only 24 times this season and never from more than four runs, not allowing their offense to pack it in was an important step. There’s no telling where they’d have been without Hairston on this night.
“It’s been the story of the year for us,” Werth said. “When we get up early, we don’t tack on. We get out to a lead, the team comes back. We haven’t really done anything to come back. When we’re down, we really haven’t come from behind. You look back at last year when we won all those games, we did it quite a bitâ€¦ That’s the story of our season really. We haven’t come from behind like championship teams do.
“I think our approach this year really hasn’t been conducive to the lefties,” Werth added. “Scott has a proven track record. He’s a veteran player. Regardless of what the stats say for this yearâ€¦ You can’t hold up too much weight on seasonal stats especially when there’s a proven track record like Scott’s.