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Nats' bench embracing 'next man up' mantra

NEW YORK -- Injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon have forced the Nationals to rely heavily on their bench this season.

For the first time since 2012, the players on the bench have been productive fill-ins. Players such as Danny Espinosa, Clint Robinson, Michael Taylor, Dan Uggla, Tyler Moore and Jose Lobaton have contributed to a team that is on top of the National League East.

Of the players on the bench, Taylor is expected to see everyday action by next year, when he could replace Denard Span in center field. Moore is the only bench player left from 2012 (Espinosa was the regular second baseman that year), and he said it helps that the reserves are getting a chance to show their skills on a regular basis.

"It does have that feel of 2012. It feels good. It has a positive vibe in the clubhouse between us," Moore said. "When our starters are out, [the bench comes in] and it has been good so far."

Robinson, Uggla and Espinosa are the three bench guys who stand out this year.

Robinson has arguably been the MVP off the bench. He is in his first full season in the big leagues, and manager Matt Williams has played him at first base and the corner-outfield spots. It seems Robinson is doing something positive with the bat every time he is in the starting lineup.

"It's game to game, at-bat to at-bat," Robinson said. "I don't think anyone thinks of himself as a bench player. … We go out there and expect to succeed. The organization expects us to succeed. That's why we are here. It's just being out there and playing."

Uggla is the leader of the bench. The veteran is a reserve for the first time in his career, and he seems comfortable in his new role. In the first game of a doubleheader against the Phillies on Sunday, Uggla went 3-for-4 with a run scored to raise his batting average to .235. But that doesn't tell the whole story, according to teammate Ian Desmond.

"Dan is awesome," Desmond said. "He is a big part of this ballclub -- a lot more than what people know. In the clubhouse, he is rallying guys, he is always picking guys up. He is always positive. He has a knowledge that he is sharing with guys, especially the bench guys. He is a smart baseball player. He is handling his business exactly the way the organization thought he would. He is just as important as anybody else on this team."

Uggla downplayed his role on the bench and is happy to be a member of the Nats.

"I love this group of guys. This organization has been pretty awesome to me since I signed with them," Uggla said. "I'm enjoying myself."

One could argue that Espinosa has helped save the Nationals' season. He was slated to be a backup infielder, but the injury to Rendon has forced Espinosa to play often. He has played every infield position and also saw time in left field. Espinosa has even showed improvement at the plate by striking out less frequently.

"Last year, his head was getting out in front of his body," Williams said recently. "This year, he is sitting down at the plate a little bit more and he is letting the ball come to him. Any time you can do that, you have a better chance of having a little bit of success. He loves to play. I love to put him in there."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats.
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