CINCINNATI — His motto should be, “Xavier Paul, always on call.”
For the past few months, Paul has been Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker’s Main Man off the bench when situations call for a left-handed pinch-hitter.
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And ‘X’ has marked his spot. So far this season he is hitting .300 in his pinch-hitting duties that includes a grand slam.
The 28-year-old outfielder from Slidell, La., was released last July by the Washington Nationals and was unemployed for nine days before the Reds signed him to a minor-league contract on July 12.
Six days later he was plucked from the Class AAA Louisville roster and spent the rest of the season doing benchmark bench work — .314 in 86 at-bats that including 12 hits in 36 pinch-hitting assignments (.333).
Those who have been everyday players and end up as pinch-hitters say that coming off the bench cold to pinch-hit is like sitting in a freezer for a couple of hours then rushing to a table to do a crossword puzzle.
In his last two appearances, Paul has singled both times, once to successfully launch an extra-inning victory and the other in trying to launch an extra-inning victory that was not successful.
But he did his part.
“It’s tough, that’s for sure,” said Paul. “But one thing I’ve learned is to never let myself get too high or too low. You are going to have your streaks where it is not going so good and you have your streaks where they can’t get you out. It is learning to take the game day-to-day.”
That, of course, is how great relief pitchers operate. They have short memory spans. They forget the day before, whether they strike out the side or give up a game-losing three-run home run.
“That’s it, exactly,” said Paul. “Sometimes they get their stuff lit up and sometimes they have a 10-inning scoreless streak. I’ve just learn to accept failure and learned how to handle success.”
There is a rare window of opportunity for Paul right now. Regular left fielder Ryan Ludwick won’t return to the lineup until mid-July (shoulder surgery) and his stand-in, Chris Heisey, is struggling, bumping along at .183.
Baker hints that Paul may be allotted more time in the starting lineup, “Because we need some production out there (in left field). We’re leaving so many men on base in key situations. We wish we had Ludwick, but we don’t. So we need some production.”
So Paul might get the call. He was in left field for Wednesday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs.
“Paul has been doing his job off the bench and it always amazes me that people seemed shocked when he does his mob,” said Baker. “He did the same thing last year. I’ve known about him for a long time. When X-man was with the Dodgers (2009-11), Gene Clines was the hitting coach and he told me all about Paul. He said, ‘He can hit.’
“I always try to match him up against guys who throw hard,” said Baker, knowing that sneaking a fastball past Paul is like trying to get a house fly past a hungry frog.
Defense has been an issue during Paul’s career and Baker said he sees Paul doing something about it with extra detail during batting practice.
“I’m taking fly balls in batting practice, shagging real hard,” he said. “I’m taking them in all three positions and practicing my throws from all three positions. I have to stay familiar with all three because I never know where I’ll end up.”
As for a preference, Paul said he has played all three, but mostly left field and right field, “I have no preference. I’ve bounced around all three in my career. I’m not an everyday guy and have to play all three so I’ve learned to like ‘em all, I guess.”
Anybody who believes that extra players sit on the bench chewing sunflower seeds and sipping Gatorade until the manager calls his name doesn’t understand the job description.
Here is Paul’s regimen on days he is not in the lineup:
“They have an indoor 60-yard track behind the dugout,” he said “You can get your sprints in to get loose. I also go into the weight room. I hit off the machine. I keep myself moving around. In between every inning I try to do a little bit of something, just so I’m loose if Dusty calls me name at any time it won’t be a big shock to my body.”
Paul, though, still envisions the time when he gets to play all nine innings a few times, to see what he can do with more than one at-bat every two or three games.
“As a player, you want to be in the lineup every day,” he said. “But we have a great group of players, a great bunch of guys. Losing Luddy (Ludwick) was huge. Once Heisey heats up, him and myself will do a good job of filling in while Luddy is out.”
Asked if he wants more playing time, Paul, who has only two years of major-league service on his resume of 10 years in pro ball, paused for effect and broke into a broad grin and said, “Yeah, of course, I wouldn’t mind playing more. If that happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”