SAN DIEGO — Gio Gonzalez walked into the dugout at Petco Park Tuesday night, six more scoreless innings in the books for the left-hander, and knew his night was likely over. With the Washington Nationals scraping for every run they can get these days and the San Diego Padres doing the same, he knew his upcoming spot in the order would likely go to someone else.
So Gonzalez walked over to Chad Tracy, the Nationals’ pinch hitter extraordinaire, and gave him an unsolicited vote of confidence.
“You’re the man right now,” Gonzalez told Tracy, moments before the veteran delivered in a 3-1 Nationals victory. “If we’re put in that situation, you’re going to go up there and be clutch for us.”
Tracy has generally been the Nationals’ first bat off the bench this season. But on a normal day, not even he would likely have been manager Davey Johnson’s top choice. With left-hander Clayton Richard matching Gonzalez’s zeroes, Tracy’s at-bat was going to be left-on-left. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was unavailable, sent for an MRI on his ailing right shoulder and unable to hit. Against a lefty starter, all of the Nationals’ right-handed bats were already in the game except backup catcher Jesus Flores.
Johnson looked down his bench, aware of the situation, and knew it had to be Tracy.
“He was my first choice,” Johnson said. “He’s the guy I want up in those situations.”
Rarely does it work out as seamlessly as it did. With runners on second and third and the infield in, Tracy ripped a two-run single up the middle. Both runs scored, ensuring Gonzalez would get the win after extending his streak to 20 consecutive scoreless innings and putting the Nationals’ starters at 22 for the same feat.
It was the most unlikely of candidates in the most unlikely of spots. Tracy, who was joined by Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina on the bench Tuesday night, had two hits in 15 at-bats this season and has started just one game. But he was ready. In the batting cage behind the dugout, Tracy took all of his mid-game swings off a left-hander to prepare. They all did. And Ankiel added to the lefty mystique in the ninth when he tacked on an important insurance run as a pinch hitter himself — also against a left-handed pitcher.
“We’re veteran guys,” Tracy said, continuing to validate Johnson’s emphasis this offseason and spring on having players who can excel in that role. “We’ve done it before. We’re not going to go up there and be overwhelmed by anybody or the nerves are not going to get to us.”
The Nationals are averaging 3.58 runs per game, a meager total, and have exploded for more than three runs on just seven occasions in their first 17 games this season. And yet they’ll wake up Wednesday morning at 13-4, owners of the best record in the National League. Their ability to “scratch and claw to try and get a couple of runs,” as Johnson said, coming through because of pitching their manager admits has to be “perfect.”
Essentially, though, it has been.The Nationals’ pitching staff has compiled a 2.21 ERA — a number that drops to 1.72 when you account for just the starters.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Tracy said. “They’ve been carrying the load lately, for sure, but … they’re not going to be perfect all year. We’d love them to, but that’s just the nature of the game. Our time will come to carry the team.”
That fact has not gone unnoticed in a clubhouse that’s well aware of what their pitching has brought them early this season. Amongst themselves, the Nationals see what they’ve been able to do this month and realize what it means for their potential future.
“We’re not really firing on all cylinders right now and we’re 13-4,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who saved the game with a 26-pitch seventh inning escape of the Nationals’ worst jam of the evening.
“So, it’s like, ‘Yeah, OK, we’ve got a lot of the pieces in place. We’re going to start swinging it eventually and if we go through our lulls we can pitch our way through them. That’s the exciting thing about this club.”