SAN DIEGO — Hours before they’d turn the music up loud and the Washington Nationals would celebrate a hard-earned, 10-inning, 6-5 victory over the San Diego Padres, manager Davey Johnson sat in the visitors’ dugout at Petco Park and answered a question about his bench.
The Nationals’ pinch hitting stats, among the league’s elite in 2012, were bleak. Forty-one games in, they had eight hits and no home runs. They were the only team in the National League without a pinch-hit RBI.
“They’re awful,” Johnson said of the numbers. “Just come out and say it.”
Perhaps the hardest to figure of all of the slumping “Goon Squad” members, as they’ve nicknamed themselves, was Chad Tracy, the veteran left-hander who’d earned a contract extension with his ability largely as a pinch hitter in 2012. Johnson joked that when Tracy got a pinch-hit single on Thursday night, he declined to pinch run for him so the 32-year-old could remember what it felt like to be on the bases.
Tracy entered the game with just six hits on the season in 37 at-bats.
He’d found himself lying in bed at night thinking about his opportunities. Sitting in his hotel room, mind racing, hoping the next at-bat would go differently. If it didn’t the cycle would start over again until “finally you get to the point where you just let it go. Whatever happens, happens,” Tracy said. “I think I’m kind of at that point now.”
As Rafael Soriano made the long trek in from the visitors’ bullpen in center field at Petco Park Friday night, Tracy looked up at the lineup card and noticed that the Nationals’ closer had been slotted into the No. 2 spot in the lineup on a double-switch. Soriano was summoned to protect a two-run Nationals lead, but Tracy knew that, should anything happen, that’d probably be his spot to hit in the top of the 10th inning.
Something did happen. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman made a throwing error, a tough scoring call on a difficult play in which he ranged to his left and threw across his body. And three two-out base hits later, the Padres had tied the game, 5-5, with Soriano’s second blown save of the season.
“I would never complain about a play, but that’s not an error,” Zimmerman said after the game. “I mean, I don’t know if they have Brooks Robinson as a scorekeeper here or what… It is what it is. In the end I feel bad because it hurt Sori.”
Meanwhile, Tracy raced up the tunnel to the batting cage. Ali Modami, one of the Nationals’ batting practice pitchers, threw him two balls. The swings felt good. Tracy ran back down to the dugout, and jumped into the batter’s box with two outs against Padres closer Houston Street.
Street’s third pitch was a changeup, the second one he’d thrown Tracy in the at-bat. Tracy connected with it out in front, a little off the end of his bat, and broke out of the box as it sailed toward right field. They drew the fences in here at Petco Park this offseason, and the right field wall came in 11 feet from where it stood since the park opened in 2004. Tracy’s first home run of the season wouldn’t have made it in the old park.
As they mobbed him in the dugout, a potentially gut-wrenching loss pulled back into their clutches, the Nationals didn’t care. Old fences, new fences, it mattered not. They had a lead back.
“(I was) fired up,” Tracy said. “As a collective group we (on the bench) haven’t really come in and won a ballgame for us yet… But that’s something that can kind of get us going.
“That makes up for anything he’s done in the past,” Johnson added with a wide smile.
Tracy’s heroics, however, could’ve been wasted had Drew Storen not pitched his way through a difficult 10th inning that featured an infield single off his throwing hand, a filthy changeup to strike out Chris Denorfia, and a hold-your-breath bobble by Zimmerman on a tough hop on the final out for Storen’s first save of the season.
“That one gave me a few more gray hairs,” Johnson said. “And I don’t need a few more gray hairs.”
Tracy’s on-field contributions may be minimal thus far this season, but the respect for him inside the confines of the clubhouse is obvious. Teammates praise him for his energy, for how he supports them from the bench each and every night. How he often runs back up to the clubhouse to watch video and races back down to try to give his teammates any information that might help.
“To see him come up and get his first homer in a huge way for us, to win it, was awesome,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche.
It meant the Nationals, who got 6 2/3 innings out of left-hander Gio Gonzalez despite a dicey start, would stay just a 1/2 game behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East standings. And that five runs of offense earlier in the game — all via home runs, including two from LaRoche and one from Zimmerman — wouldn’t be wasted.
“Any time you win a ballgame you feel great,” Tracy said. “But when you do something to win it in that fashion, especially after they came back and had the guy on third with less than two outs in the ninth, I think everybody was a little bit more fired up.”