- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Dan Uggla wrapped white tape around the heel of a brand-new bat Wednesday afternoon, leaning forward in his chair and looking up as he spoke. His role with the Washington Nationals has been in perpetual motion over the past several months, offering him fewer and fewer opportunities to impact a game. But his approach, and personality, have not changed with it.

“Honestly, I’m the same dude,” Uggla said, the roll of tape still winding its way around the handle. “Whether I’m pinch-hitting or starting, that’s the only way I know how to be.”

Uggla’s role has shifted and shrunk since he signed a minor-league deal with the Nationals this winter. At the time, the burly 35-year-old was a legitimate candidate to start at second base, replacing free agent Asdrubal Cabrera. Then the Nationals traded for Yunel Escobar, and Uggla’s starting odds grew slim. An injury to Anthony Rendon pushed him into the starting lineup on Opening Day, but Danny Espinosa’s early success has slowly pushed him out.

Now, Rendon is in the middle of a minor-league rehabilitation assignment at Double-A Harrisburg. He was scheduled to play both legs of a doubleheader Wednesday night, and he has played only second base during this stint. When he rejoins the Nationals, likely within the next week, Uggla’s already dwindling playing time will only continue to decrease. He knows this, but insists he won’t let it affect him.

“You know, that’s not my problem to worry about,” Uggla said. “My job is to come here and play when they need me to play, and that’s it. When Anthony comes back, it’s going to better us, better our team, and we’re all excited for that.”

Uggla was once among the best power-hitting — and most durable — second basemen in the game. He received at least 448 at-bats in each of his first eight seasons in the majors, including five with the Miami Marlins and three with the Atlanta Braves. Last season, in large part because of a vision problem that hindered his ability to track the ball, he struggled and was limited to fewer than 150 at-bats. He was cut by the Braves, then later released again by the San Francisco Giants.

This year, Uggla has made a clear transition from starter to bench player. Since hitting a memorable go-ahead three-run home run in Atlanta on April 28, thereby lifting the Nationals to a 13-12 victory, he has received only 23 at-bats in 30 games.

“That’s, I think, a reflection of how well [Espinosa’s] played,” manager Matt Williams said. “So, [Uggla]’s relishing the opportunities that he’s getting. He’s prepared. We’ve seen his pinch-hit at-bats have been good. … And, of course he’s going to get his starts from time to time. But he’s a true team guy. He enjoys being on this club, he enjoys being in the clubhouse with the guys, and relishes any opportunity that he gets.”

Uggla said his mentality does not change due to his role in any particular game. His demeanor in the clubhouse has been similarly consistent. The man who earned the nickname “Huggla” because of the frequent hugs he distributes is the same one who publicly declared that the team needed to “sack up” in late April. He hit that aforementioned home run in Atlanta the following night.

That combination of lightheartedness and toughness makes Uggla a unique brand of leader.

“If I ain’t playing, I’m the same person every day,” Uggla said. “You’ve got to be a man if you want to play this game, along with any kind of other professional sport. … You’ve got to sack up and get the job done. That’s what it comes down to. It’s not ‘try your best’ or whatever. It’s ‘get the job done.’ That’s just my mentality that I’ve had my whole career. I think that’s kind of what you have to have doing anything.”

And that’s the mentality that Uggla has now, as his diminishing role seems destined to take another hit. When Rendon rejoins the Nationals, likely as their starting second baseman, Uggla might go several weeks without starting a game there. He might go days without getting an at-bat in a game.

“It is what it is,” Uggla said, still wrapping his bat with tape.

NOTES: Denard Span was back in the lineup for the series finale after missing Tuesday’s doubleheader with soreness in his right knee. … Stephen Strasburg played catch Wednesday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left trapezius muscle strain. He is still considered day to day. … Washington swept the National League’s monthly awards in May, as right fielder Bryce Harper was named the Player of the Month and Max Scherzer received Pitcher of the Month honors.

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