Every championship-winning team has them. For the Red Sox in 2018, it was Steve Pearce. The Astros relied on the play of Marwin Gonzalez the season prior. What would the 2016 Cubs have done without a young Javier Baez?
These aren’t superstar players, gracing the front pages of stadium programs or cashing the biggest checks. For the most part, they don’t even start on a regular basis. No, these are the players who fill in when there’s an injury in the lineup or a starter needs a day off. They play multiple positions, enter games off the bench and generally don’t have many fans wearing their jerseys in the stands.
The Washington Nationals lost star shortstop Trea Turner to a broken index finger on Tuesday, putting him on the shelf with no timetable for his return. An excellent defender who got off to a hot start at the plate, Turner is a huge loss for a team already out to a frustrating 3-3 start.
“I couldn’t move it,” Turner said after the X-ray results confirmed a break. “I’ve never had anything dislocated … so I figured that’s what it was, and I think it might have been a combination of that and also with a break, I’m not really sure, but yeah, I couldn’t move it so I knew something wasn’t good.”
Enter Howie Kendrick, who was activated off the Injured List on Thursday after missing nearly all of last season with a ruptured Achilles and straining his hamstring during Spring Training. He doesn’t play shortstop, but Kendrick is a former everyday starter for the Angels and Dodgers who was acquired by the Nats to play a super-utility role in 2017.
“I’m healthy now,” Kendrick said Wednesday “Like I can play, I just can’t come off the [Injured List] yet … I believe maybe Thursday I think it was, so I’m excited to be back, and like I said, have an opportunity to help the guys out and play some baseball.”
Every team is going to endure injuries, including those who go on to win championships. If the Nationals hope to finally get over the postseason hump, they’re going to need to find a way to do so as well. Their first test? Absorbing the loss of Turner — and that begins with the play of Kendrick.
The Nationals have other backup infielders in Wilmer Difo and Adrian Sanchez who will fill in at Turner’s defensive potion, but neither has shown much promise at the plate in their young careers. They also likely won’t turn to top shortstop prospect Carter Kieboom just yet, who’s 21 years old and trying to get acclimated to second base at AAA-Fresno this season.
“We don’t feel that [Kieboom is] ready to play shortstop in the big leagues on an everyday level at this time,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday. “We want to get Boomer some more reps at shortstop and second base in Triple-A and he’s not too far away, but he’s just not ready just yet.”
That leaves Kendrick, who’s 35 years old but received an MVP vote in 2014 and was an All-Star in 2011. It’s likely the Nats use him as a pinch hitter for Difo or the pitcher’s spot late in games as well as an irregular starter to give other players some off days. He won’t get the regular playing time Difo will see amid Turner’s injury but will be just as vital to the team’s success.
Losing a star like Turner would be a blow to any team. Such a loss early on might be enough to derail a season if the club doesn’t have the depth to replace him. But while the pressure to fill his shoes doesn’t fall on any one player’s shoulders, it’s Kendrick who has the ability to rise to the occasion and make a difference on a ballclub down one of its best players.