30 Players in 30 Days: Roger Bernadina

Roger Bernadina takes flight.jpgIt all clicked for Roger Bernadina on May 12 (see above). It was a dreary day in New York and the Nationals were preparing to play the rubber match of a three game series against the Mets at Citi Field. The conditions were far from perfect and maybe that’s why they were just right for Bernadina whose ascension through the Minors was anything but seamless.

The Nats’ coaching staff gathered like they do before every game and concluded that Bernadina was ready to show he was a Major League player. Manager Jim Riggleman boldly predicted Bernadina would hit a double and a triple in the afternoon’s game–not just record two hits but a double and a triple. It was like bravely betting the house on green in roulette–the odds were next to nil. Bernadina was batting .212 (7-for-33) with three runs and one RBI in 12 games.

It goes without saying, Riggleman was wrong in his prediction but he was right in the outcome. He just underestimated Bernadina a little bit. Bernadina went 3-for-5 and hit two home runs–including a two-run blast to right to win the game 6-4 in the top of the ninth. He also showed off his range in the outfield by robbing Jeff Francoeur of a three-run double in the fifth inning with a gravity-defying, highlight reel catch.

The break on May 12 was much different from the break he got in 2009–a type of break that ruins career not propels them. Bernadina fractured his right ankle while making a leaping catch in center field on April 18. Before his season could really begin–his first start–it was over. He would return to full strength and he proved it on that fateful day.

Bernadina had finally arrived. He was now more than a raw athlete with potential. In one day, he raised his batting average 51 points and solidified a spot as the everyday right fielder.

“He’s just scratching the surface of his ability level,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s come up here and has shown flashes of that everyday corner outfielder that he can be.”

Ian Desmond has never been short on hyperboles or stories but he has watched Bernadina develop since their days together in Savannah, Ga., with the Single-A Sand Gnats in 2005. He has some unforgettable memories of Bernadina making “unbelievable” catches and throws. Desmond knew he was capable of this and knew it was only time before everyone else witnessed his skills.

“I’ve just been telling everybody the whole time this guy is going to be really good,” Desmond said at the time. “Just watch. Let him play and watch. People are like, ‘Eh, we’ll see.'”

So can Roger Bernadina be any everyday player? The sample size grew a little bit–one full season in the Majors–but the verdict is still out. Succeeding in baseball is all about being consistent–anyone can be great for a day. At his best on June 28, Bernadina was hitting .291 (46-for-158) with five home runs, 23 RBI and a .354 OBP. In the beginning of the season, he only played when right-handed pitchers started but towards the end of the season he showed he can hit left-handed pitching, but began to struggle at the plate against lefties and righties. From August 13 until the end of the season, he batted .201 (32-for-159) with four home runs and 16 RBI.

“He’s scuffed results-wise,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “The game is not physically demanding on him. He’s just a physical specimen. He could be playing football. The guy is not going to be worn down physically. The grind is mental. He’s had some ups and downs. He’s had times where he’s really looked like he’s ready to go to the next level. Then he got in a little funk where he struggled. He’s passionate about it. He doesn’t say much, but he’s really upset with himself when he makes outs. He’s worked very hard.”

He really could be playing football. He looks like a wide receiver in a baseball uniform. There isn’t an ounce of fat on his body and if there is you are going to need a magnifying glass to find it. Josh Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman call him T.O.–short for the NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens who is famously known for doing sit-ups shirtless in his driveway in front of camera crews during a contract dispute in 2007. Bernadina is T.O. without the drama or baggage. He is reserved in the clubhouse and has a smile as bright as the Curacao sun. He chews gum like it is his second job–he has a piece in his back pocket at all times–and competes with Adam Dunn for the best bubble-blower on the team.

It took him seven years in the Minors and a broken ankle, but he finally got his chance to play in the Majors. It wasn’t easy but it has never been easy.

“He’s got power,” Adam Dunn said. “When he puts everything together, he’s going to be a special player. He’s a young kid, but he’s figuring it out.”

He is still a work in progress but if he figures it out he could be a staple in the Nats’ outfield.

“He’s a guy we’re trying to get as much information on as we can, because we’ve got to see about next year,” Riggleman said. “Do we anoint him as one of our three outfielders, or do we have to look further?”

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