CINCINNATI — Just another work day for Xavier Paul is to show up at the ballpark and be ready to do whatever Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker asks.
Pinch-hit? He’s ready.
Pinch-run? He’s ready.
Late-inning defense? He’s ready.
Hand Baker a wristband or a toothpick? He’s ready.
So Sunday morning in Great American Ball Park was different for the 28-year-old Paul, a native of Sidell, La. When he walked into the clubhouse he saw his name on the lineup board.
It figures. It was his first start of the 2013 season and his assignment was to face Washington’s Stephen Strasburg, one of baseball’s best pitchers.
But that’s the way it is for extra outfielders. They take what they can get and take it with a smile and with as much optimism as they can muster.
Paul made much of his opportunity on this day as the Reds smothered Strasburg and the Washington Nationals, 6-3.
Paul singled his first two times up and scored a run in the first inning, then broke a 3-3 tie in the sixth with a run-scoring ground ball to second base.
And when he wasn’t swinging the bat, he used his glove for more than warmth in left field, making an excellent catch on Ian Desmond in the sixth inning after a long run toward the foul line.
There was, of course, a method to Baker’s manipulations. There always is. After regular left fielder Ryan Ludwick wrecked his shoulder on Opening Day, Chris Heisey stepped in and started the next four games.
Heisey, though, bats right handed and Strasburg throws right handed, and throws like few other right handers.
“Right handers only hit .185 against him last year and left handers hit .270,” said Baker.
So because Paul bats left handed he drew the assignment Sunday.
“I know it’s a real tough job to be a fourth or fifth outfielder,” Baker said. “He played a lot in spring training and it has been only about a week since we left that gives him a little advantage. But I think he has a better chance against a good right hander like Strasburg.”
“It’s a tough job, a job in which you have to find a way to keep yourself ready, keep yourself in shape. You have to run and throw in between — work harder than anybody. If you are a starting outfielder, you run about a mile a day just running back and forth to your position between innings.”
An extra outfielder is more like a caged jaguar pacing the small floor plan of a major-league dugout.
Paul, of course, relishes the challenge. Playing time is playing time, whether it is against Stephen Strasburg or Steven Spielberg. Before Sunday, Paul had four pinch-hitting appearances, including his first career grand slam home run during a 15-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
“I just have to go in there and battle because I know it will be a tough day in the batter’s box,” said Paul before Sunday’s game. “He has a great repertoire of pitches, a really good fastball. I’ve never faced him, but I’ve watched video.”
Now he has faced him and he has had success.
“He has good stuff, no doubt about that,” Paul added. “At the end of the day he had to throw strikes and I had to hit strikes. You try to treat him like any other hard-throwing right hander. You just battle him from the mental side of it, but you sure know it won’t be a walkover.”
While the Reds were thinking about the task of facing Strasburg, the Nationals were thinking about their task of facing Cincinnati’s best, Johnny Cueto.
“It’s a classic old school match-up,” Baker said. “This is about as good as it gets.”
It didn’t look like much at the start. The Reds scored three in the first and Cueto gave up a three-run home run to Kurt Suzuki in the third.
Cueto settled down and gave up just the three runs, seven hits and three walks in six innings. And when the Reds raked Strasburg for three runs in the bottom of the sixth, Cueto was awarded the victory.
Baker said Cueto looks forward to a day like Sunday.
“Johnny isn’t easily rattled,” Baker said. “He used to be. But not any more. He never complains about who he is pitching against. I’ve had some guys complain, ‘I get all the tough draws.’”
Baker said Cueto’s comfort level was elevated gradually, after he learned how to get out of trouble, “Find out how to come up with Damage Control, how to give up just one run instead of blowing up and giving up four. That’s what Johnny has done. He knows how to pitch to situations — if he needs a strikeout or if he needs a double play.”
Baker said he hears Cueto in the dugout yelling at the team’s other pitchers, “Double play, double play.”
Baker laughed and said he remembers Greg Maddux, how he’d throw a sinker and get a double play to get out of a bases loaded one-out mess, “And everybody would call him a lucky so-and-so. It just so happens the same guy was lucky all the time.”