Impact Index: Xavier The Savior

The Washington Nationals were a fashionable pre-season pick to steal the National League East title from the five-time reigning champion Philadelphia Phillies. Or to grab one of the two National League wild cards. Spring story lines focused on the Nationals getting a full season from young ace Stephen Strasburg, top performances from star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman Michael Morse, Jayson Werth living up to his $126 million contract, and an infusion of energy and offense midway through the season from super-young phenom Bryce Harper.

On the second Monday of the season, the Nationals find themselves atop the National League East with a record of 7-3. And while Strasburg has pitched well and Werth has shown flashes of being a productive offensive player, the Nationals owe much of their early success to their bench guys. That’s what happens when you play three extra-inning games in the first full week of the season. If your bench guys and relief pitchers come through, you win the extra-inning games. If they don’t, you lose.

There’s nothing we love more here at the Impact Index than three extra-inning games decided by the play of bench guys and relief pitchers. Remember from our debut last Monday, the Impact Index highlights the efforts of baseball’s unsung heroes. The bench guys. The bullpen arms. The twenty-third, twenty-fourth, and twenty-fifth men on their team’s roster. The players who typically enter a game in the late innings, when the outcome of the game hangs in the balance.

The Nationals won two out of the three extra-inning games they played last week. We’re going to focus on their Friday night contest when they beat the Cincinnati Reds in 13 innings by the score of 2-1. This week’s Impact Index hero played a critical role off the bench in that game. You might say he was the savior.

Xavier Nady, VI is the twenty-fifth man on the Nationals’ roster. Funny that a guy with an “VI” after his name would be a utility player, but such are the circumstances Nady the VI finds himself in. His roots date to the original Xavier Nady who lived in the French hamlet of Auxelles-Bas in the 1500s. X the First, as his great-great-great-grandfather is called, re-kindled the tradition when he moved from France to Iowa in the 1860s.

Xavier the VI grew up in Salinas, California where he was a stand-out high school ballplayer. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him out of high school in 1997 but he chose instead to attend the University of California, Berkeley. At Cal he set a Pac-10 Conference (now called the Pac-12) record for career slugging percentage (.726). The San Diego Padres then drafted Nady in the second round of the 2000 amateur draft. The Padres immediately sent him to the big league club, making Nady one of twenty-one players to skip the minor leagues before playing in their first major-league game.

But Nady’s amateur success did not lead to success in the major leagues. His career has been marked by injuries, including two Tommy John surgeries, a broken hand, and an emergency appendectomy. Over ten seasons, he’s played in only 880 games, for the Padres, Mets, Pirates, Yankees, Cubs and Diamondbacks. Prior to this season, Nady’s career slash was .275/.328/.438.

The Nationals signed Nady to a minor-league deal this spring. He played only six games in spring training, but showed enough to manager Davey Johnson to make the Opening Day roster. It helped that Nady can play both corner outfield spots and first base, given injuries Michael Morse, who had a break-out season in 2011 playing those positions.

So far in 2012, Nady’s started four games in left field and has gone 3-for-20. But he’s 2-for-3 as a pinch hitter, making him the perfect Impact Index player. One of those pinch hits came in the bottom of the 8th inning in the Nationals game against the Reds last Friday night. The Reds were leading 1-0. Bronson Arroyo was shutting out the Nats and had hit the sacrifice fly that scored the Reds’ only run. Yes, that Bronson Arroyo, the one with the 2.08 home run-per-nine innings rate and 5.07 ERA in 2011. In this game, Arroyo was on the mark. He’d thrown only 94 pitches and held the Nats to just three hits and one walk.

With one out and the bases empty in the bottom of the eighth, Reds manager Dusty Baker pulled Arroyo, a righty, in favor of Bill Bray, a lefty, after the Nats announced Chad Tracy as a pinch hitter. Tracy is a left-handed batter and had two critical pinch hits for the Nationals in the first two games of the season. Davey Johnson countered by pinch hitting Nady, a right-handed batter, for the pinch hitter Tracy. Here’s what happened:

With one swing, Nady tied the game. The Nationals won it in the bottom of the 13th when Jayson Werth hit a bases-loaded single to knock in the winning run. But without Nady’s homer, the Nationals wouldn’t have been playing in the 13th inning. That’s what makes him our Impact Index player of the week.