Haynes provides in a pinch
Angels outfielder goes from bench to at-bat with ease
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Pinch-hitting is one of the hardest jobs to master in the Major Leagues, because it's all but impossible to get in a groove when at-bats come randomly and can be days apart.
It's a skill rarely needed in the American League because of the designated-hitter rule, but the last man off the bench on a loaded team like the Angels experiences a similar purgatory.
Outfielder Nathan Haynes, 28, made his Major League debut with the Angels last season, and was asked to perform a challenging task: sit for days at a time, rarely start, and still perform at a high level when summoned during a game.
"It's a role that really is for more of a veteran player," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
Called up May 28 as the latest in a revolving door of reserves who did a lot more sitting than hitting, Haynes impressed enough in his rare bursts of action to stay on the roster for the rest of the year and even make the postseason roster. He batted .267 in only 45 at-bats and provided excellent speed and defense.
"He really played well in a role that's not usually suited for a guy with that little experience in the big leagues," Scioscia said.
Haynes never blinked. After waiting a decade to make the Major Leagues, he didn't even need regular playing time to prove himself valuable at the game's highest level. He admits he was nervous when he got his opportunities, but he knew he was ready.
"You just keep hitting," Haynes said. "You've got to make sure you get your work in, do what you have to do to stay as sharp as you can, and when you get in there, let your ability take over."
Easier said than done, doubtless, but that same attitude serves Haynes well in Angels camp this spring. While Scioscia said Haynes is fighting for a roster spot, the Angels' remarkably crowded outfield seems likely to leave him on the outside looking in, barring injury.
Haynes is out of options, so if he does not make the Opening Day roster, he would have the option to become a free agent and sign with another team. While he'd like to remain in red, Haynes' future remains uncertain.
"I'm doing the same thing I did last year, trying to play to the best of my ability, [because] that's the only thing I can control," he said.
Haynes' road to the Major Leagues was slowed by things he couldn't influence, as he has undergone eight surgeries since turning pro. The East Bay native was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round in 1997 out of Pinole Valley High, but he was traded to the Angels in 1999. Prior to 2004, he joined the Giants' system as a Minor League free agent.
Haynes had flashes in the Minor Leagues, but they were usually accompanied by setbacks. He batted .310 with 33 steals for Double-A Arkansas in 2001, but lost time that year and in 2002 due to knee and thumb injuries. He hit a combined .276 with 33 steals for Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake in 2003, but missed all but eight games over the next two years with a tear in his left hip.
At the start of 2006, Haynes was playing for an independent league team in Gary, Ind., but he joined in Arkansas June 22, moved on to Salt Lake, hit .386 in 44 games there last year, and made his way to the Angels less than a year later.
"It was great," Haynes said. "My mother, my father, my sister, my girlfriend, everybody was very supportive and very proud because of the way I stuck it out," Haynes said. "All the times I could've given up, these people wouldn't allow me to, and I'm just glad they got to share in my success."
Haynes shared part of the offseason training with third baseman Chone Figgins, a friend who helped Haynes get comfortable at the Major League level. And no matter where he ends up this year, Haynes now knows that he's capable of succeeding in the Major Leagues, just as he hoped when he was drafted over a decade ago.
"Last year was a great experience," he said. "This [team] is a great bunch of guys, and to be able to experience the postseason and all that was unbelievable."
Mark Thoma is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.