Over the course of a 162-game season, Manny Acta knows there are going to be nights when he needs his bench. The Washington Nationals‘ eight starting position players can’t always be counted upon to carry the team.
So when two mainstays found themselves on the bench last night — one for health reasons, one for mental reasons — Acta turned to two reserves who have not enjoyed particularly productive seasons.
Leave it to Robert Fick and D’Angelo Jimenez to take these rare opportunities and turn them into game-winning performances.
Thanks to homers by both Fick and Jimenez, the Nationals were able to overcome a scary head injury to first baseman Dmitri Young and the inconsistency of shortstop Felipe Lopez and pull off a 7-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
“It’s a team game,” Acta said. “Every one of them is part of it. That’s why we have to throw them out there every once in a while because they’re part of the team. On any given night, any of those guys … can help you win a ballgame.”
Jimenez’s first homer of the season gave Washington a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Fick’s second homer of the year — a three-run shot — gave the home team the lead for good and helped compensate for Young’s departure in the third inning.
The veteran first baseman took a bad-bounce chopper off his right temple and fell to the ground in agony. Head in hands for several minutes, Young drew a crowd of teammates, coaches and trainers as the RFK Stadium crowd of 26,866 looked on.
“He’s been a big brother for everybody on this team,” right-hander Jason Bergmann said. “When a guy like that goes down … you just want to make sure he’s OK.”
Young eventually hopped to his feet and convinced Acta to let him stay in the game. But after returning to the dugout at the end of the inning, he complained of a stiff neck and a slight headache, so he was taken back to the clubhouse for observation. He will be re-evaluated today, but the injury doesn’t appear to be serious.
Fick, a veteran hitting .213 entering the game, took Young’s place and immediately made a difference. He battled through a 10-pitch at-bat against Lance Cormier and finally deposited the ball into the right-field bullpen for a three-run homer that put Washington ahead 5-3.
“To be honest with you guys, I haven’t been coming through for the team all year,” said Fick, who had only eight RBI entering the game. “And the fact that I could do that for the team, for me, was just priceless.”
Bergmann (5-5) was the beneficiary of the run support and wound up earning the win after 62/3 innings. Relievers Arnie Munoz, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero then finished things off for the Nationals, though Cordero tempted fate by loading the bases in the ninth before getting Chipper Jones to ground into a game-ending double play for his 34th save.
Notably absent from Washington’s lineup was Lopez, the slumping shortstop who hasn’t driven in a run since Aug. 12 and appears to have let his struggles get to his head. Acta decided to give him last night’s game off but did meet with him for 45 minutes in his office before batting practice, hoping to boost his confidence.
“He’s just frustrated because he feels that he has done everything in his power and he’s not the player that people are seeing right now,” Acta said of Lopez, whose .240 batting average represents a 34-point drop from 2006 and a 51-point drop from 2005. “I just told him he can’t give up. I don’t want to make guys think he’s given up. He’s got to give his best effort, and things will work out.”
Lopez, who has been moping around the field and the clubhouse for the last three weeks or so, said he expects more of himself and has had a difficult time dealing with his struggles.
“If I didn’t care so much, I wouldn’t be so frustrated,” he told reporters before the game. “I would be just like some guys who are [expletive] happy. They like mediocrity. I’m not like that. [Expletive] mediocrity. That’s why I’m [upset] about it. That’s why I show it sometimes on the field. I hate it. That’s not me. I expect a lot more than this.”
Last night, Acta decided to give Lopez a rest while giving Jimenez a chance to start at shortstop. The seldom-used utilityman rewarded the move by enjoying his finest offensive game of the season. He hit a two-run homer in the first (his first since April 16, 2006), doubled and scored in the third and then singled in the fifth to cap a 3-for-3 effort that raised his average to a season-high. 208.
“It’s tough to come off the bench,” Jimenez said. “But I’ve been learning and trying to do my job.”