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Aug 07

Nats’ likely bench players gaining valuable experience for postseason

The dog days of August are proving to be a grind for the Nationals, playing .500 ball in their past 10 games. But while they endure this rough patch of injuries and a sometimes sputtering offense, they are laying valuable groundwork for the postseason.

Let’s face it, with a 13-game lead in the National League East, and none of the other teams playing even .500 ball, it’s extremely likely the Nats will win their fourth division title in six seasons. While this might be the most exciting team since baseball returned to Washington 12 years ago, there won’t be much suspense between now and the end of the regular season, except to see if this team passes the 95-win mark yet again and secures a few superlatives.

This edition of the Nationals has a chance to break the Washington single-season scoring mark of 892 runs set by the 1930 Nats, having scored 598 through 109 games. We can root for Max Scherzer to win his second straight Cy Young Award, Daniel Murphy to take home the NL batting title he missed on the final at-bat of last season, and Bryce Harper to win his second NL MVP award.

But we won’t have a division race to capture our imagination, and the players won’t have one to hone their competitive instincts for the postseason. But for a team that has battled injuries all season, they may be getting the next best thing: lots of time on the field for bench players.

It’s remarkable enough that the Nats have compiled the second-best record in the NL and third-best in all of baseball with four regular position players currently on the disabled list. Their starting lineup has not been intact since April.

The silver lining is that Brian Goodwin, Wilmer Difo, Adam Lind and the newly acquired Howie Kendrick are getting meaningful at-bats and innings on the field, gaining valuable experience that could benefit them in the postseason. They’re making the most of it before outfielders Jayson Werth (foot) and Michael A. Taylor (oblique) return in the next couple weeks. Starting shortstop Trea Turner (wrist) could be back by Labor Day.

If every injured starting position player except Adam Eaton returned today, the Nats’ bench would look like this: Kendrick .356/.408/.892; Difo .260/.321./.689; Lind .298/346/.858, nine homers, 37 RBIs; and Goodwin .240/.309/.789, 12 homers, 27 RBIs. That doesn’t count backup catcher Jose Lobaton, who has never had impressive offensive numbers in the regular season, but has been clutch in the postseason for both the Nats and Tampa Bay Rays.

If the Nats decide their rebuilt bullpen is solid enough to go with 11 pitchers, they could add Stephen Drew, who has struggled with injures this season, but has gone .316/.417/.890 as a pinch hitter. If Eaton (torn ACL) regains his starting job in the postseason, then you most likely have Michael A. Taylor, .278/.320/.831 12 homers, 35 RBI and 11 steals so far, displacing Drew.

Compare that to last season, when the Nats had no one on their postseason bench with 30 RBIs, and their biggest power threat was Chris Heisey, with nine homers, and you can see why general manager Mike Rizzo made a priority of beefing up the bench in the offseason and the days leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline.

Even the Dodgers, who have a real chance for the most regular-season wins ever, have no one on their bench who has driven in 30 runs or hit more than 10 homers to date.

The postseason is a time when any player on the roster can make a difference. Last season’s NLDS with the Dodgers came down to the last at-bat. The 2012 series with St. Louis hinged on a couple pitches. A player with experience and confidence can come through in those situations, while a guy without much meaningful playing time has less of a chance.

By giving their potential bench players valuable at-bats and chances in the field in meaningful games now, the Nats could gain a competitive edge when they need it most.