- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

NORFOLK | There is a part of Willie Harris that still clings to the idea of being an everyday player and all the spoils that go with it - better money, more recognition and greater certainty.

Especially the certainty.

Over the course of 162 games, baseball breeds nothing better than it breeds routine: following the same schedule every day, knowing which pitcher to study on Tuesday and Wednesday, beating down the same patch of grass (or dirt) each inning.

Harris still yearns for that life every now and then, but not much. For him, the paychecks and the accolades have gone up as the certainty has gone away. A year after he plied his utilityman trade to earn the biggest contract of his career, he’ll be the ringleader of what suddenly looks like one of the National League’s deepest benches.

A confluence of veterans has transformed Washington’s bench, stocked with minor league transplants most of last year, into an outfit full of proven players.

The Nationals have one for just about every situation. Harris can pinch hit, pinch run or be a defensive replacement at one of the five positions he played last year. Josh Willingham and Ronnie Belliard both play multiple positions and add a home run threat. Either Elijah Dukes or Austin Kearns - whoever isn’t starting - gives the team a strong-armed outfielder with power.

Even the two extra catchers Washington will likely carry - Josh Bard and Wil Nieves - bring something different; Bard is a switch hitter who batted .285 two years ago, Nieves a sound defensive catcher who has handled almost the Nationals’ whole pitching staff.

“I think we might have the best bench in the game,” Harris said. “I think we’re deep, I think we’re strong, and I think we’re going to be capable of doing a lot of great things.”

The configuration of the bench is more or less by happenstance. Some of it came together when the Nationals traded for Willingham, who put Dukes into a competition for the right field spot with Kearns. Then the Nationals signed Adam Dunn, who nudged Willingham out in left.

That the Nationals didn’t intend for all the players to be reserves shows in their salaries - Willingham will make $2.95 million this season; Belliard, who will start at second at least until Anderson Hernandez returns from a left hamstring strain, will get $1.9 million; and Kearns, if he doesn’t beat out Dukes in right, adds a whopping $8 million to the bench. Then there’s Dmitri Young, who will get $5 million this season whether he ends up with Nationals or somewhere else.

One way or another, it gives manager Manny Acta choices. That’s something he didn’t have last year, when the likes of Kory Casto, Johnny Estrada, Ryan Langerhans, Rob Mackowiak and Pete Orr combined for 104 pinch at-bats.

“We have options that we didn’t have in the past,” Acta said. “If a couple of guys go down, we’re going to be able to survive and cover those guys with big league ballplayers, which wasn’t the case in the past.”

Willingham, Kearns and Dukes have started most of their careers. Players say coming off the bench is harder than starting, so Acta knows two of the three will have to adjust to a new role.

“It’s mostly mentally,” Acta said. “You know what? I’d rather have two or three guys that are unhappy on the bench that are talented, that I can go to them and they’ll help me win, than have three guys that are happy and untalented.”

Harris is a case study in how rewarding a bench spot can be. He hit 13 home runs in 140 games last season, establishing career highs in almost every offensive category and crafting a reputation as a player who could handle almost any role. The team rewarded him with a two-year, $3 million deal in the offseason.

Harris is part of a new breed of bench players who can do so many things that they make an everyday job out of being a backup. And for the first time in his career, he has found a calling.

“I love it. What I love most about it is when my manager says things like he can be at peace,” Harris said. “I read a quote where he said he can go home at night and rest because he has me on his bench. I’m still an everyday ballplayer in my heart, but at the same time, I know my job and I know my role on this ballclub.”

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