Opening Day brought Nationals fans plenty of early-season excitement, from Bryce Harper’s power display, to Stephen Strasburg’s quiet dominance, culminating in Rafael Soriano’s closing introduction.
Each of those performances were thrilling in their own way, but going back to the beginning of Spring Training, none were as unexpected and inspiring as Wilson Ramos earning the Opening Day start behind the plate.
When pitchers and catchers reported to Viera, Florida on February 11, Ramos was just easing his way into action after recovering from a right knee injury suffered last May in Cincinnati. The damage required two surgeries, with the repair to his anterior cruciate ligament not taking place until July 18 – leaving just seven months until the start of camp.
With such a brief amount of recovery and rehabilitation time, the common question was not whether Ramos would able to start on April 1 against the Miami Marlins, but if he had progressed enough to land on the Major League roster or instead would begin the year on the disabled list.
Slowly but surely, Ramos began erasing doubts. The 25-year-old Venezuelan caught his first bullpen session on February 14, then participated in sliding drills on March 2. He made his first in-game catching appearance March 5 during a Spring Training contest against the Houston Astros, then caught a full game for the first time on March 22 – just 10 days before Opening Day.
His breakthrough occurred with five days to go. In a March 27 split-squad game against the Atlanta Braves, Ramos belted two mammoth home runs, driving home four runs in the 11-2 victory. No longer saddled with concerns about his knee, Ramos was able to cut loose with his swing, displaying the power that made him one of baseball’s top hitting catchers during the 2011 season. He was almost all the way back.
Then, at 1:09 p.m. on Monday, it became official. Given a “carrot for hard work” by manager Davey Johnson, Ramos found himself catching Strasburg’s gem and batting eighth in Johnson’s lineup. He drew a walk in his first plate appearance, then singled sharply through the hole on the left side of the infield in his second. He masterfully blocked balls in the dirt. He caught a laser of a throw from Harper in the seventh inning, then fired to first base, trapping Placido Polanco in a rundown. Eventually, he tagged out Giancarlo Stanton trying to score to complete the rare 7-2-3-4-2 double play, helping Strasburg out of his only jam of the afternoon.
Ramos will rest every other day to start the season, sharing time with Kurt Suzuki and continuing to build up strength. But now, unlike the beginning of spring, the common question is not whether or not Ramos will play, but what he might be able to accomplish now that he’s back behind the plate.