Professional athletes don’t typically show much enthusiasm for riding the bench, but then again, not much is typical about the 2012 Washington Nationals.
The previously listless team started the season like a rocket, hurtling to first place in the competitive National League East before settling comfortably into second place at the end of May. Rookie phenom Bryce Harper made the jump from the minors to the majors more quickly than expected, while superstar pitcher Stephen Strasburg is back to impressive – if not quite dazzling – form after a major shoulder surgery in 2010.
But perhaps the biggest surprise about this year’s Nats team is the performance of players whose names aren’t typically in the starting lineup. Faced with a rash of injuries to key starters, the Nationals’ bench players have been coming up big, sparking scoring rallies and shoring up the team’s play in the field. The reservists – some of whom are seasoned Major League veterans and some who are fresh faces from the minors – not only take pride in their limited roles, they’ve even given themselves a collective nickname: The Goon Squad.
During clubhouse interviews with On Tap in late May, members of the so-called Goon Squad – including outfielder Xavier Nady and infielders Chad Tracy and Steve Lombardozzi – said they relish a chance to play, no matter when the opportunity arises.
“We’re the guys who, when we need an at-bat late in the game, [manager] Davey Johnson looks down [the bench] at us,” said Tracy, who played for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Florida Marlins before landing in Washington two years ago. “You only get one at-bat a night, usually …and more than likely, the at-bat is in a close ball game with runners on base and they need us to try to drive in a run.
“It’s tough because first of all, there is a lot of pressure, and second of all, you’re not in the flow of the game,” Tracy explained. “The odds are against you, but at the same time the experience we have increases our chances of having success.”
On a May 5 game against the Phillies, Tracy went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer, two runs and a double. The performance solidified his position as a card carrying member of the Goon Squad and also served notice that he’s ready to start when needed.
So what does it mean to be a card-carrying member – or in this case, T-shirt-wearing member (Tracy had nifty Goon Squad t-shirts made for the guys) – of the Goon Squad?
“It means you’re on the bench,” Nady blurted out with laugh. “In this game, if you’re not in the starting nine, a big at-bat can come down to pinch hitting and someone in the Goon Squad has to step up.”
During the On Tap interview before a home game against the Orioles, Nady was sporting his Goon Squad T-shirt featuring silhouettes of bat-wielding tough guys under the words “Goon Squad” in block letters.
“In my mind, it’s the hardest thing in baseball coming off the bench,” Nady said. “You sit there and anticipate and try to get a big at-bat. A lot of times they are crucial at-bats.”
Nady, a Major Leaguer since 2000 and a National since March of this year, has played for seven different franchises and recorded 100 home runs in his career. He’s started more than 10 games for the Nats this season as part of a rotating cast of players subbing for injured Nats left fielder Michael Morse.
Johnson, the Nationals’ manager, told On Tap he’s been impressed with the way his bench is playing.
“The bench has been outstanding, and the guys who are taking the brunt of it are the young guys (like Lombardozzi) who aren’t really used to that kind of role,” Johnson explained. “It was put together to be more offensive and its’ shown that capability. The guys have been very flexible. I liked my bench coming out of spring (training), I just wish they weren’t playing as much as they are.”
Lombardozzi is perhaps the Goon Squad’s All-Star at this point in the season. According to the Washington Post, as of May 22, Lombardozzi ranked 14th among all major leaguers with at least 80 plate appearances, racking up an impressive .407 on-base percentage. Baseball is in the rookie’s blood. His father was also a pro ball player with the Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins from 1985-1990.
Lombardozzi, who was called up from triple-A ball at Syracuse late last season, has excelled in his first full season in the majors. He told On Tap the change takes some adjustment.
“You get out there and it’s a little nerve-wracking at first,” he said. “The stadium is bigger and there are a lot more people. And pinch hitting isn’t the easiest thing in the world. You’re putting everything on that one at-bat.”
He said the Nats’ coaches are consistent in telling the guys on the Goon Squad to let it rip once they get a chance to step up to the plate or take the field.
“The biggest thing they’ve talked to us about is they want us to be aggressive,” Lombardozzi, a Maryland native, said.
Lombardozzi, Nady and Tracy each said they’re just trying to make the most of opportunities and help the team win some games.
“It’s just a group of us going out there and trying to have some fun with it,” Lombardozzi said.
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