PITTSBURGH | The Nationals entered Monday night’s game with four players hitting .300 or above.
One is Wilson Ramos, the power-hitting catcher of the future who currently is sharing time with Ivan Rodriguez. One is pitcher Jason Marquis - who, to be fair, has had just 10 at-bats. And one is injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hasn’t played since April 8.
The fourth? Outfielder Laynce Nix, one of the Nationals‘ three left-handed bats off the bench who has started just five games but is hitting .300 in 30 at-bats and has managed two home runs and seven RBI - more than both Jayson Werth and Rick Ankiel.
He added to those totals Sunday with an RBI double in the eighth inning to give the Nationals a three-run cushion that proved pivotal when Pittsburgh attempted to rally in the bottom of the ninth, the second late-game boost he’s given Washington on this road trip. Nix also clubbed a home run Wednesday in St. Louis, both times helping to put the Nationals in position to win a series.
“He’s a good player,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He was a good player for Cincinnati in this role, and we’re finding some at-bats for him.
“I don’t want him to sit too long without at-bats because he can also hit for power. It’s not just that he’s going to go extend a rally with a single. He’s got a chance to knock one out of the park every now and then.”
While the Nationals‘ offense has struggled to get into a groove in the first month, it hasn’t been helped by the fact that there have already been seven days in the season’s first 26 that the team hasn’t played. For a bench player like Nix, that means the stretches between starts - or even at-bats - can make it difficult to produce when called upon.
But Nix, who hit .291 as a bench player for the Reds in 2010, hasn’t shown any ill effects from the layoffs and, by making a mental adjustment at the plate - remaining more relaxed and maintaining that feeling throughout his swing - he’s already hit half as many home runs this season as he did all of last year.
Not including either catcher, Nix has by far been the Nationals‘ most productive bench player, often providing a much-needed boost to an offense that has seen their biggest hitters silenced for much of the month and doing it many times as a late-game replacement or a pinch-hitter.
“I don’t like to dwell on how tough the role is,” Nix said. “Because I think it’s kind of understood - but it is tough. I never know what’s going to be thrown at me. I never know when I’m going to start, when I’m not, I just try to stay ready all the time.
“But it’s also tough for these guys to go face major league pitchers every day.”
The secret to his early success?
“It’s just kind of best to not think,” he said. “It’s nice that I’ve gotten some hits early. I think that helps for you to stay energized and keep going but with as few at-bats as I have.
“The main thing is that I’ve driven in runs late in games. There’s a limited amount of at-bats, and sometimes there’s highs and lows with that. So I’m just trying to keep locked in and feeling good at the plate.”
NOTES: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has been on the disabled list with an abdominal strain since April 9, will not be activated but will be re-evaluated when the team returns to Washington on Tuesday. Zimmerman will be put through some baseball activities to test the strained area. Not having seen live pitching since April 8, Zimmerman could require a rehab assignment before he’s ready to return to the major league roster. … Ian Desmond hit second in the lineup for the first time this season Monday night with Ankiel getting his first day off. Desmond is a .281 career hitter from the second spot in the order. Jerry Hairston Jr. started in center in place of Ankiel, and Brian Bixler made his Nationals debut at third base.