WASHINGTON -- After he became Nationals manager in June 2011, one thing Davey Johnson noticed was that the club needed to improve its bench.
Johnson saw it was more defensive-minded, as Alex Cora, Ivan Rodriguez and Jonny Gomes hit a combined .186 with 14 RBIs.
During the offseason, general manager Mike Rizzo overhauled the bench and added veterans Mark DeRosa and Chad Tracy, along with youngsters Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina and Sandy Leon. Jesus Flores is the only holdover from last year's team. Together, they are known as the "Goon Squad," a nickname given by Tracy. It has nothing to do with their looks.
"It's good way to keep our bench alive," Moore said. "It's a tightknit group as long as we are with this team. It's a fun kind of name."
Washington's bench is more than just a tightknit group. The team has one of the best benches in the big leagues. As pinch hitters, the Nationals were a combined .288 (61-for-212) with four runs and 26 RBIs. The biggest pinch-hit came in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, when Moore drove in the game-winning run.
"We have pieces that fit," Rizzo said. "It gives Davey some tools to work with at the end of the game. It allows Davey to do what he does best -- to manufacture and manage the back end of the game."
But pinch-hitting wasn't the Nationals' only specialty. When regulars such as Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond went down with injuries, it was the bench that came through. There was Lombardozzi getting starts at second base and left field. Tracy was seeing some time at third base, while Moore and Bernadina saw playing time in the outfield.
"Well, normally you don't have a bench with a couple rookies on it, but [Jhonatan] Solano and Moore have been outstanding," Johnson said. "Actually my bench became my regular left fielders. ... Tracy has been outstanding. ... Tyler Moore, these guys can play and play every day. Lombardozzi did a heck of a job, never played any outfield. He was part of the platoon system in left field. They played great.
"And Lombardozzi hit over .300 pinch-hitting, and that's not easy to do, and Tyler Moore did a lot of pinch-hitting, hit [his share of home runs] pinch-hitting, and of course, the big hit the other day to win the ballgame.
"The bench is really important. That's really the only time I manage. I manage my bench against their bullpen and vice versa."
DeRosa and Tracy are the father figures of the bench. They are always wiling to help the young reserves. For example, DeRosa was the one who told Bernadina to use a lighter bat. To start the season, Bernadina was using a 34 1/2-ounce bat. He now uses 33- and 31-ounce bats. In fact, Bernadina ended up having the best season of his career.
Tracy has also helped the younger players prepare for the late innings.
"I feel like they are already great baseball players and we don't really have to teach them how to play the game," Tracy said. "It's just the mind-set and how to be prepared to go up there cold and try to have a productive at-bat. And they have done that. At times, they have been better than [the veterans have]."
Said Rizzo about adding the veterans, "They were not only brought on this team for their skill set, but for what they bring in leadership and how they mentor the young players. They are accessible guys that give of their time, their information and their knowledge. They are guys that are willing to share with their fellow teammates. Young players can learn from veteran players like them."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.