Call it desperation. Call it a hunch. Call it a calculated gamble. Whatever you want to call it, the lineup card Matt Williams filled out Tuesday in Colorado was unlike any he had attached his signature to since becoming manager of the Nationals last year.
Jayson Werth, owner of a .261 on-base percentage (.203 in 19 games since coming off the disabled list), leading off? Yunel Escobar, owner of fewer home runs in 1,179 career games than Bryce Harper owns in 467 career games, hitting cleanup?
Hey, why not? What exactly did Williams have to lose at this point by trying something completely different?
And considering that new-look lineup wound up exploding for 15 runs in a rout of the Rockies, you better believe the Nats will return to Coors Field on Wednesday with a similar look.
Sometimes it just takes a different look to get a slumping ballclub going again. Maybe it lets everyone relax, loosen up at the notion of a lineup that felt like it had been picked out of a hat. If the Nationals’ biggest fault during their 2 1/2 weeks of misery was playing tight, this certainly was one way to lighten the mood.
Thing is, there was some actual logic behind the changes.
Werth may have been in a major funk at the plate since returning from his fractured wrist but he’s not about to lose his job, at least not on a regular basis. Given the Nationals’ other options at this point, not to mention the 36-year-old’s track record, he’s going to remain in the lineup. So why not put him in a position where he has succeeded before and doesn’t feel pressure to drive in runs?
It was three years ago, you’ll remember, when Werth also returned in August from a broken left wrist. That 2012 version of the Nationals sorely lacked a traditional leadoff hitter, so Davey Johnson decided to put Werth there, recognizing he wasn’t likely to hit for much power with a still-healing wrist but could still work the count as well as anybody.
The result over the 38-game experiment: Werth hit .309 with a .388 on-base percentage. He hit only two homers, but the Nats didn’t need him to do that. He merely needed to get on base in front of Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman.
So what happened when Werth returned to the No. 1 spot in the Nationals’ lineup Tuesday night? He reached base three times, scored three runs, saw 23 total pitches and did a highly effective job setting the table for the rest of the guys.
And how did those other guys do? Really well. Danny Espinosa, batting second, went 3-for-5 with two doubles and two RBI. Harper, batting third, drew four walks and came around to score each time. And Escobar and Ian Desmond, batting fourth and fifth, each recorded three hits and four RBI. (They’re the first Nationals teammates to drive in four runs apiece in the same game since Werth and Espinosa on May 20, 2011 against the Orioles.)
Escobar certainly doesn’t fit the bill of the prototypical cleanup hitter, but neither is he a natural fit leading off. He has, however, been the Nats’ best contact hitter this season, a guy who can be counted on to put together a quality at-bat and deliver more than his share of hits. So why not give him as many opportunities as possible to deliver those hits with men on base?
Will this unconventional look hold up the rest of the season? We’ll see. Certainly if and when Denard Span returns from the DL, Werth’s days leading off will come to an abrupt end.
But for now, given the way things have been going, the Nationals have nothing to lose by giving it a shot. It worked Tuesday night. Might as well find out if it can work Wednesday night as well.