The Kids Are All Right

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by Amanda Comak

In the final weeks of Spring Training, as the Washington Nationals began to whittle their roster down to the 25 men who would travel north with them to begin the 2014 season, manager Matt Williams had to have several difficult conversations. Rosters constraints are what they are, Williams had to explain, and at that moment there just wasn’t room for everyone.

There was one caveat Williams tried to impress on some of the young talent that made the trek to his office in those final days of camp.

“You need 35 guys during the course of a season – on the low end,” he told them. “We’re going to need you guys at some point. Make sure you’re ready.”

In the first three weeks of the season, the Nationals have already summoned four of those players, and no fewer than five rookies, including right-hander Aaron Barrett who made the team out of camp, have made significant contributions. It’s the first time since 2009 that the Nationals have used as many as five rookies in the month of April.

Aaron Barrett holds the ball used in his first MLB strikeout.

Aaron Barrett holds the ball used in his first MLB strikeout.

Early-season injuries, along with a taxed bullpen, have necessitated the promotions of catcher Sandy Leon, right-hander Blake Treinen, outfielder Steven Souza Jr., and infielder Zach Walters. Barrett, who was outstanding in six games (4.1 IP), did not surrender a single earned run and allowed just one hit before a the need for a fresh arm sent him to Syracuse last weekend.

On the Nationals’ most recent road trip, clubhouse manager Mike Wallace was so busy properly inscribing important baseballs for the many “firsts” the rookies racked up, it seemed the Nationals were rolling a ball out of play every night.

“They all proved that they were capable during Spring Training,” Williams said this past week. “Some guys have been up here before, but they were ready to come when they were called. That’s a testament to player development, making sure they’re playing enough and getting at-bats and doing things they need to do to be ready when they’re called.

“We don’t want them called – and by that I mean, because you want your starting guys out there – but it’s a testament to them that they were ready.”

For the players, it has been quite an experience.

“The whole thing is a dream,” Walters said. “Just being here.”

When Barrett entered to make his Major League debut on Opening Day – in a tie game – his adrenaline surged. Before he began his warm-up pitches, shortstop Ian Desmond approached him.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘Hey, just take a second and look around. Just take this all in,’” Barrett said later that day. “I’m just really glad he did that, because I’ll never forget that moment and that he did that for me.”

Zach Walters, left, Steven Souza Jr., center, and Sandy Leon, right, hold the baseballs used in their various MLB "firsts" before a game in Miami this week.

Zach Walters, left, Steven Souza Jr., center, and Sandy Leon, right, hold the baseballs used in their various MLB “firsts” before a game in Miami this week.

Treinen made his Major League debut on Saturday, April 12, and registered his first Major League strikeout that night when Atlanta Braves third baseman Chris Johnson swung at strike three.

Leon, who has appeared in the big leagues in each of the past two seasons but retains his rookie status, smashed his first Major League home run over the right field wall on Monday night in Miami. After that game, Leon smiled often and called his first MLB homer “really awesome.”

Walters, who is also in his second big league stint after a September call-up last season, followed suit on Tuesday, crushing his first big league home run to right field. He didn’t wait long for his second, either, with a shot to deep left field that broke a 3-3 tie with the Marlins in an eventual 6-3 victory.

Souza Jr., whose indirect path to the Major Leagues has brought his emotions right to the surface now that he is here, picked up his first big league hit on Tuesday night, a single up the middle. When he got back to the dugout, his teammates were waiting for him.

“It’s so cool, man,” Souza Jr. said. “The love you get around here, the camaraderie. I’m just the new guy up there. Everybody is making me feel so welcome. To get hugs from (Desmond), who I started (in the organization) with, to Tyler (Moore), one of my best friends, it’s just a moment I’ll never forget.”

Sandy Leon holds the ball he hit for his first MLB home run.

Sandy Leon holds the ball he hit for his first MLB home run.

“I was just glad I was able to get a couple of zeroes and some outs, and do what I was called up here to do: eat some innings and help save our bullpen,” Treinen said after his debut. “It felt good. I’m kind of at a loss for words. It was fun to be up here at this level.”

The baseballs used in those “firsts” become the ultimate keepsakes for the players. They are authenticated by a Major League Baseball authenticator and inscribed by Wallace. Where they go from there is up to each guy. Treinen immediately gave his to his parents, and Souza Jr. said his was likely heading to his parents as well.

“It’s one of those things,” Souza Jr. said. “You’ve come so far, and all the hard work (that’s gone into getting here), and the people who helped me along this way, it’s a moment to kind of share with everyone.”

“These guys have wanted to do this since they were six years old,” said Williams, who still has the baseballs from his “firsts” as a player. “It’s the culmination of your efforts to become a big leaguer. And then there are three stages of that: you want to get there, you want to stay, and then you want to win a championship.

“I’m happy to see them all doing well.”

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