The Washington Nationals were off Tuesday, the free day between their season opener and the next game a gift for having good weather when the curtain went up on 2013.
And yet, there was Chad Tracy, standing in on Jordan Zimmermann’s bullpen session in an otherwise quiet Nationals Park.
Tracy tracked the pitches the right-hander threw in an attempt to keep his eyes sharp and his bat ready if and when manager Davey Johnson should call on him in a game.
“We work harder now, I think, when I’m not playing,” Tracy said. “I’ve always said, I probably hit more now than I do when I’m playing every day.”
The Nationals closed their spring training slate Friday. They went into Wednesday night’s game against the Miami Marlins having played just one game in the interim, a 2-0 victory Monday, and all of their regulars played all nine innings. They expect that scenario, at least with regard to playing time, to repeat itself often.
On a team with a lineup that requires few pinch-hitters and even fewer defensive replacements, the Nationals’ bench players, Tracy, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina, are faced with a difficult transition.
They played most every day in spring training, part of Johnson’s plan to have them sharp by the time the season opened, but now they have to maintain that edge with several days between their last extended action and their next — and no word on when it might come.
“They’re where they need to be,” Johnson said Wednesday. “But with a lot of off days early and especially with the makeup of this ballclub where nobody wants to come out of the lineup, I’ll be trying my best to get them in.
“Of course, I usually get the dagger eye when I try to double switch one of [my regulars], especially [second baseman Danny Espinosa],” Johnson said, laughing. “But I knew that [keeping the bench sharp] was going to be an issue coming in.”
Johnson has talked with those players, and he relies on Tracy, a veteran, to do the same with some of the younger guys like Moore and Lombardozzi. But the responsibility for keeping themselves ready tends to fall to each individual player, and that means a lot of early work.
Most of the Nationals’ bench players arrived at Nationals Park early Wednesday, greeting batting practice thrower Ali Modami and hitting coach Rick Eckstein between 2 and 2:30 p.m. They head to the cage and do early drills, most geared toward keeping their eyes sharp and seeing the ball well. They don’t take on-field batting practice until after 5 p.m.
With Tracy, Eckstein will stand about 45 feet in front of him in the cage and pitch with as much velocity as he can muster, as well as mixing in a few breaking balls, and Tracy will work on picking up the ball as it hurtles toward him.
“Seeing it, for me, is the big thing,” Tracy said, his early work already done by the time the clubhouse opened to reporters after 3:30 p.m. “I don’t like to take any days from seeing the ball. … It’s like lifting weights for your eyeballs.
“When you’re in the game speed at spring training and you’re seeing eight pitches per at-bat, you’re taking pitches [not] far off the plate. You know where the strike zone is, you know, when the ball’s coming, if it’s going to end up off, if it’s going to be in, if it’s going to be down. That’s the thing that I want my brain to be computing. Down, up, off, in; that’s what you try to keep.”
Bernadina said the transition is more of a mental one as he goes from a starting role in the World Baseball Classic for the Netherlands and plentiful spring at-bats to sparse playing time. Moore and Lombardozzi, both used to playing everyday and guys the Nationals feel have the capability to do so, also arrive early to get extra work in.
“You just have to be ready to play, whenever it is,” said Bernadina, who hit .291 in 2012 despite starting just 98 games.
For the catchers, Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos, who will alternate starts each game, the task is a little easier. But Suzuki said when he’s not starting in a game he’ll make sure he catches a bullpen session that day.
“It’s going to be tough all year,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we stay healthy, but I’ve got a lot of guys who don’t want to come out of the lineup and I don’t see a whole lot of reason to take ‘em out of the lineup.”