When Pitchers Hit
by Amanda Comak
VIERA, Fla. — There was a new notation on the Washington Nationals’ daily schedule Monday morning. The spot that had been filled the past few days by the rundown for live batting practice sessions was replaced.”Pitchers Hitting Game,” it read.
Around 11:15 a.m., the pitchers departed from the Minor League fields and moved the rest of their workout back toward Space Coast Stadium. One group, Team Zimmermann and Team Strasburg, made their way onto the auxiliary field just outside the stadium. Another, Team Young and Team Fister, took their places on the field inside the stadium.
The game, made-up in the mind of Rehab Pitching Coordinator Mark Grater, seemed simple. The teams were picked schoolyard style with Doug Fister and Chris Young named captains in one group, and Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann captains in another. The object was to score more runs than your opponent in a nine-inning game. The focus was on bunting, moving runners, and doing the little things that pitchers need to do at the plate but in a competitive atmosphere.
“It breaks up some of the monotony,” said Fister, who has noted his excitement about being in the National League. “There are things that we have to focus on every day that are very important, and hitting and bunting and moving runners are (some) of them. For (Manager Matt Williams) to schedule things like that where we’re able to have fun with it, it’s going to stick in our brains.”
For the teams playing on the field inside Space Coast Stadium, Grater ran the show. As pitchers gathered their helmets and bats, he ran through the rules.
- At the start of an inning, they needed to reach base with a hit — a line drive off the L-screen protecting Grater was a single, but one-hop off it was an out. Grater himself decided whether a ball was a hit or an error. Home runs did count, but they were not the goal of the exercise, so if a pitcher hit one, he’d have to run out beyond the fence and get the ball himself.
- The pitchers weren’t running the bases, but if they “reached” based on their plate performance, the following “hitters” had to follow the proper directions. Number of outs, where the runners were, where the defenses were playing (as determined by the team captains) all played into what the hitter would have to do (bunt, hit a ground ball to the right side of the field, etc). If they couldn’t, they were out. Successful bunts were not outs (as most would be in real games), and those who were able to produce them were allowed to stay in the batters’ box. But if a hitter bunted twice in a row, they were out.
- If one captain decided that, with a man on second and a line drive hit into the gap, he wanted to “send the runner home,” the outcome would be decided by Grater throwing at a pre-determined target. If he hit it, the runner was out. If he missed, the runner was safe.
There was, of course, one humorous twist. Grater, as the game’s overlord and head umpire, made the rulings — and the rulings were final. Only captains could voice dissent, and others who did were required to run a lap around the infield as penalty. Gio Gonzalez found himself running several laps.
Trash talk, of course, was plentiful. And the competitive juices flowed throughout, as did the watchful eyes.
When Taylor Jordan hit a home run in the late innings, (Telling Grater, "You're pitching me inside! What do you expect?") he marched himself only to the outfield fence, picked up a different ball and then returned. Pitching Coach Steve McCatty would have none of that, and sent the young right-hander back down the left field foul line to properly retrieve his home run ball.
Team Fister took a late lead, but Team Young won it in the ninth when, with the "bases loaded" Christian Garcia roped a home run over the left center field fence. As Gonzalez -- hands raised in victory pose -- sprinted around the bases in celebration and by choice, Grater noted that because Garcia wasn't supposed to be hitting a home run, his run didn't count but the first three "runners" who scored would. The final score was 8-6, Team Young.
On the other field, Team Zimmermann topped Team Strasburg.
"Oh yeah," said one reliever on the Nationals' 19-game winner's team. "We dominated."
And while the purpose of the game was to get pitchers to work on their situational hitting, it also allowed them to think along with a manager and how the game would be run in those various situations.
"You've got to put pressure on the defense," said Fister, who was aggressive in "sending" his baserunners. "That translates into a game. I come from an area where, playing with (Torii Hunter) last year, that’s one thing that he stresses: take that extra base. Try and stretch that single into a double, that double into a triple. It’s amazing how many extra runs you pick up just because of one extra base with that mentality."
The pitchers enjoyed the exercise so much, that they took an amendment to the rules to Williams.
"They made a new rule," Williams said. "This was supposed to be, we break the groups up, they play against each other, we have two winners. Now they have a championship game they want to do. So we’ve got to fit that in there, into the (schedule)."