CHICAGO — The first time he did it, Chad Tracy was a good story.
A journeyman infielder who'd traveled halfway around the world and back to keep his career alive. He was one of the final players to earn a place on the Washington Nationals' 25-man roster, on the second-to-last day of spring training.
And then he was the guy who came up with a big hit for his team on Opening Day.
The second time he did it, delivering when his team needed him most, he shrugged it off. Unaware as he drove in the winning runs in the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Saturday that he was suddenly the toast of a fanbase that probably figured by now that his name would be long forgotten with that of the rest of the invitees who don't make the cut.
"I think when he came into camp, he'd be the first one to tell you that his chances weren't great," said first baseman Adam LaRoche.
But on this Nationals team, the one that was questioned about its lack of offensive upgrades all spring, he's an integral player.
In a five-run eighth inning, keyed by second baseman Danny Espinosa's two-out, 10-pitch at-bat that ended with a home run launched into the left field bleachers, it was Tracy who struck the decisive blow with a two-run single to right. It might be too soon to call the Nationals comeback kids, but the moniker might just fit their left-handed pinch hitter.
"You know, you can't really draw it up like that," Tracy admitted. "But it's been great."
"You talk about big hits and the right guy at the right spot?" said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "That was huge today."
Huge because the way the game had played out to that point, the Nationals were operating at a deficit. And then suddenly they had no shortage of heroes to credit.
In his Nationals debut, left-hander Gio Gonzalez lasted just 3 ⅔ innings, allowed four runs on seven hits and three walks and used up 74 pitches in the span of 11 outs. "If it wasn't for the bullpen, it would've been an ugly day," Gonzalez admitted.
But the bullpen, a quartet of relievers that combined for 5 ⅓ scoreless inning, allowed just one hit. Craig Stammen faced nine batters, Ryan Mattheus three. Tyler Clippard saw four hitters and Henry Rodriguez, locking down just his third career save, faced four himself. All of them allowed for the Nationals offense to take their time in awakening.
"That's the way you win ballgames on the road," Johnson said. "We've been slow getting started, but once we get started, it's fun watching."
"I think we're all confident we're all going to hit," Espinosa said. "I don't think that's going to be our identity all year, just come back, come back, come back. We don't want to be in that position every single game. ... But it's good to know that we have that as a team in the back pocket. That we don't die, and we continue to fight."
One game after striking out three times and looking so lost at the plate even his 9-year-old son Drake was asking him "Dad, what are you doing out there?" LaRoche uncorked a 4-for-5 afternoon, including a two-run homer that clanked off the right field foul pole at Wrigley Field to give the Nationals a short-lived lead in the fourth inning.
And when his teammates began joining him on the scoresheet in the eighth inning against Cubs ace set-up man Kerry Wood and closer Carlos Marmol, LaRoche followed Espinosa's homer and Ryan Zimmerman's single with a base hit of his own. He watched Jayson Werth walk to load the bases and came scampering home from second when Tracy, pinch hitting in the pitcher's spot after a double switch, laced his single to right.
"(Tracy) had to earn everything he got on this club," LaRoche said, referencing the "1,000" innings Tracy played in spring training — many of them in his place as he recovered from a foot injury.
"I'm glad he had the spring he did. If he didn't, you never know what could have happened. It's good to have him on the club. He's going to be a big part of this."
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