Dusty Baker was always jealous of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ “epitome of a bench” when he was manager of the San Francisco Giants in the late 1990s-early 2000s.
“They’d make you face [Tony] Batista or [Erubiel] Durazo or they’d make you face [Greg] Colbrunn, but they had you in a crossfire,” Baker, in his first year managing the Washington Nationals, said Saturday. “I hated facing that bench.”
The veteran manager shared the memory when answering a question about what he looked for when building the Nationals’ bench — which has already had an impressive first half — at the beginning of the season.
Like his former National League West rival, Baker said his main goal was to possess versatility and depth in his reserves.
Both attributes have been displayed this season, but the latter became even more visible during Washington’s series victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates last weekend when players like Stephen Drew and Clint Robinson were needed — and shined — in starting roles.
Despite a 2-1, 18-inning loss in Sunday’s series finale, the Nationals found plenty of offense in their first two games against Pittsburgh without baseball’s best hitter Daniel Murphy (.350 batting average), scratched with a sore left hamstring, and veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was placed on the disabled list July 8.
Filling in for Murphy at second base on Saturday, 33-year-old Drew had a productive night with three doubles and two runs scored to help the Nationals to a 6-0 win.
In 102 total at-bats this year, Drew is batting .255 with seven home runs and 16 RBI.
“I’m just here doing the job, you know?” Drew said before his second consecutive start on Sunday. “I know my role, I know Murph’s down for a bit and it helps — you’ve got to have a strong bench and we’ve been able to do that the first half. I’ve had a lot of experience in this game and I’ve changed some things with hitting in the offseason and I’m just glad to see the dividends of it.”
Baker also acknowledged the benefit of adjustments Drew has made at the plate over the course of the season following the electric 3-for-4 performance.
“We try to get him some at-bats so he can stay sharp and you can tell he was coming,” Baker said. “Earlier in the year, he had the Yankee Stadium stroke where he was pulling everything. I talked to [hitting coach] Rick Schu, who had him in Arizona, and he was using the big part of the field, he would still pull. When he starts going to left-center field and up the middle, you know that he’s really locked in.”
Down 1-0 to the Pirates in the bottom of the fifth on Friday, Robinson — starting for Zimmerman and batting eighth — smacked a game-tying RBI single. Later in the seventh, his second base hit of the game sparked a four-run rally. The 5-1 victory was capped by a two-run homer by another bench presence, Michael A. Taylor, who got the starting nod over Ben Revere.
While Taylor has seen only 27 less at-bats than Revere’s 225 this season, the 31-year-old Robinson gets far fewer behind Zimmerman. But as Baker pointed out, that hasn’t stopped the left-hander from producing.
“Big Robinson, he’s always ready,” Baker said after Friday’s game. “He got some big hits for us, he tied the game up off [Francisco] Liriano and then he got another hit that started a rally. Clint has been a lifesaver for us and especially in [Zimmerman’s] absence.”
The left-hander, who is batting .213 overall with 19 RBI in 108 total at-bats, also came up big just before the All-Star break.
Despite going a combined 2-for-9 over the three-game series against the New York Mets at Citi Field, Robinson hit a two-run shot, his fifth of the season, on July 9 to clinch a 3-1 decision over his team’s NL East foe.
Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 25th round in 2007, Robinson saw action in just 13 major league games until joining the Nationals in 2015, despite winning a minor league Triple Crown title in 2010.
During the New York road trip, Baker touched on Robinson’s work ethic and survival-mode mentality as a driving force behind his success.
“It’s not only his stroke, but the guy can hit and he works hard,” Baker said. “We try to get him to smile and have some fun sometimes, but I guess it’s hard to have fun when you’re thinking you might be the guy sent out, because he’s been that guy.”
With Murphy set to return Tuesday night for the Nationals’ series-opener with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Drew will likely be bumped off the starting lineup. Robinson, however, could find himself there for a while longer as no clear return date has been set for Zimmerman. Each has been ready when called this season.
• Mark Eisenhauer can be reached at email@example.com.
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