Ask Charlie Manuel about hitting and he will say, "Hitting is hard." Ask Charlie Manuel about pinch-hitting and the Phillies manager needs more than three words to characterize its difficulty and potential value.
Manuel has a soft spot for bench players; he was once in that position. Few things have flourished for his team's offense through 21 games. Laynce Nix's contributions as a pinch-hitter qualify as one positive.
Nix entered Wednesday with six hits as a pinch-hitter, the most in baseball. He is the team's highest-paid outfielder ($1.35 million in the second year of a two-year deal). Injuries prevented him from ever growing into a role last season.
It is the quality of Nix's at-bats when entering a game cold that have Manuel smiling. Nix has seen 4.14 pitches per plate appearance, which is the most of any Phillies hitter. Some of his longer at-bats have come off the bench. Nix hit the seventh pitch he saw Tuesday for a line-drive single to lead off the eighth inning.
"I've always felt Nix could hit if he stayed healthy and we got him some at-bats, especially against righthanded pitching," Manuel said. "Because when he makes contact, he hits the ball hard. He can help you. He’s already helped us."
Nix managed eight hits as a pinch-hitter in the previous two seasons combined. Just two were for extra bases. His best season in the role was 2010. Nix went 12 for 45 (.267) as a pinch-hitter with Cincinnati. That, in part, earned him increased playing time in 2011 with Washington.
The Phillies' record for pinch-hits in a season is 22, done by Greg Dobbs in 2008. Dobbs started 47 games that season. The at-bats were not as frequent for Dobbs as they were in 2007, but he still thrived as a cold bat off the bench.
"I like to see my guys come off the bench and take real good swings," Manuel said. "That's kind of all you can do. ... It's one of the hardest jobs in baseball. Believe me, I did that."
Nix has made his swings count. Three of his pinch-hits are for extra bases, including two home runs. The franchise's record for pinch-hit homers in a season is five, held by Matt Stairs (2009) and Gene Freese (1959).
Manuel's best teams featured reliable bench bats like Dobbs, Stairs and Ross Gload. He hopes a healthy and comfortable Nix can be that presence.
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