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Daily Wrap: Matt Williams’ option is picked up, the first workout is in the books & more

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by Amanda Comak

Welcome back to the Daily Wrap, a Spring Training feature that debuted last season.

We’re kicking things off early this year, jumping right into the thick of it with the first Pitchers and Catchers workout of the year. It was a busy day in Nationals land, even if it was just the first workout. So let’s jump right in.

News of the Day: Nationals exercise 2016 club option on Manager Matt Williams

The Nationals were happy to announce they’d picked up the 2016 club option on Manager Matt Williams’ contract Saturday morning, solidifying his spot in the dugout through this upcoming season and the next. Williams shared the organizational enthusiasm.

“I’m excited,” Williams told reporters in his first media session of the season. “I’m excited to be a part of the organization and the fact that (my option) got picked up. I’m honored to have that done. The organization is fantastic. They’ve supported all of us since the day I arrived here and I’m just very pleased and excited for the spring.

“I’m happy that I’ll be here through this year and next year. I look forward to the challenge every single day.”

Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo said he felt it was important for the team to pick up Matt’s option in advance of the start of Spring Training.

“It’s always good to know the manager’s going to be around for a while,” Rizzo said. “I think the players respect him greatly.”

Images of the day:

Social Media of the Day: 

Friendly game of catch between #aces this morning! #Nats

A photo posted by @nationals on

A little post-bullpen chat with the bossman. #Nats

A photo posted by @nationals on

#Focus

A photo posted by @nationals on

 

Quote of the Day: 

“He’s phenomenal. He doesn’t change — whether it’s starting or relieving, where he pitches in the rotation. Whenever we give him the ball, it’s his day to pitch and he’s excited and ready to pitch.” — Nationals Manager Matt Williams on do-it-all right-hander Tanner Roark.

Nationals exercise 2016 option on contract of Manager Matt Williams

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by Amanda Comak

The Washington Nationals exercised the 2016 club option on manager Matt Williams’ contract on Saturday, solidifying the 2014 BBWAA National League Manager of the Year’s spot in the dugout through the next two seasons.

“We are happy to pick up Matt’s option for the 2016 season,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo. “It shows the great confidence we have in Matt to continue to lead this team on the field.

“During his rookie season, he helped us navigate through injuries and led us to our second NL East Division title in three years. His leadership has earned him the respect of our players, coaches and his colleagues around the league.”

Atlanta Braves v Washington NationalsIn his rookie season in the dugout, Williams led the Nationals to the 2014 National League East division title, as well as the best record in the National League with 96 regular-season victories. Working to strengthen a culture of accountability in the clubhouse and hard-nosed play on the field, Williams guided the Nationals’ talent-laden roster back to the postseason following a one-year absence.

“Matt’s accomplishments on the field speak for themselves,” said Managing Principal Owner Theodore N. Lerner.  “He takes great pride not only in how the game is played, but in our players.  We are fortunate to have Matt as our manager and look forward to him leading us to new heights.”

After stewarding the Nationals through early injuries and inconsistencies before their ascension to the largest divisional lead in Major League Baseball (17.0 games), Williams earned the 2014 BBWAA National League Manager of the Year award and the 2014 Sporting News NL Manager of the Year award.

He was the first rookie manager since 2006, and only the fourth first-year manager in history to earn the BBWAA honors.

The decorated former third baseman was named the fifth manager of the Nationals on Nov. 1, 2013, replacing Davey Johnson.

Pitchers and Catchers Report

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by Amanda Comak

The first “official” day of the spring arrived on Thursday morning as the Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to Viera, Fla. for Spring Training.

 

While it is certainly an official date, reporting is actually not as formal as it sounds. Pitchers and catchers just need to alert a team official that they have made it to the area by Thursday. Friday they’ll take their physicals, and the first workout for pitchers and catchers will begin bright and early on Saturday morning. That’s when the real action will get going.

Nonetheless, there were a lot of hugs, high-fives and smiles today as returning Nationals reunited with their teammates and new Nationals got acquainted with their surroundings.

#Repost from @mlb.
・・・
We missed baseball hugs. #BaseballBegins

A photo posted by @nationals on

 

There were a few surprises, too. Like Danny Espinosa’s magnificent mustache.

And there was already plenty to talk about.

Spring Training Preview, Part V: Outfielders

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by Amanda Comak

Pitchers and catchers will report to the Washington Nationals’ Spring Training facility in Viera, Fla., in just nine days, so as our review of the Nationals’ 40-man roster hits the home stretch, we reach the outfield.

With the exception of swapping corner assignments, the Nationals’ outfield unit is once again one of the most stable in the Major Leagues. Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Bryce Harper will all return as the Nationals’ starting unit, with Nate McLouth, Michael A. Taylor and Brian Goodwin rounding out the 40-man outfield talent. And that doesn’t even include Ryan Zimmerman, Kevin Frandsen, Tyler Moore, and Jeff Kobernus, infielders on the Nationals’ 40-man who also have outfield experience.

We’ve already previewed the Nationals’ catchersrelievers, starting pitchers and infielders; now let’s review the 2015 outfielders.

*Note, 2014 totals reflect only Major League stats.

Bryce Harper

Division Series - Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants - Game Four2014 Season Totals: .273/.344/.423, 115 wRC+, 9.6% BB rate, 26.3% K rate, 1.3 fWAR in 395 PA.
2015 Steamer Proj.: .278/.363/.489, 137 wRC+, 11.4% BB rate, 20.4% K rate, 4.3 fWAR in 597 PA.

If the 2014 Postseason was any indication, Bryce Harper could be on the verge of posting a career season. Returning from a thumb injury on June 30, Harper hit .268 with a .342 on-base percentage and a .424 slugging percentage in his final 78 games of the season, clubbing 12 home runs. In the Postseason, though, Harper was one of the Nationals’ best at the plate, slugging .882 in the four-game series (smacking three home runs, one double and driving in four runs). Putting injuries behind him, Harper is expected to move to right field on a primary basis this season, giving the Nationals the added use of his strong throwing arm in a new spot.

Denard Span

2014 Season Totals: .302/.355/.416, 117 wRC+, 7.5% BB rate, 9.7% K rate, 3.8 fWAR in 668 PA.
2015 Steamer Proj.: .282/.338/.387, 104 wRC+, 7.5% BB rate, 11.1% K rate, 2.8 fWAR in 637 PA.

Miami Marlins v Washington NationalsComing off a career year in many offensive categories, including 31 stolen bases, Denard Span returns to the top of the Nationals’ lineup as a consistent presence and one of the best leadoff men in the league. After securing the Nationals’ single-season record for hits (184) and leading the league in that category, the Nationals are looking for another solid season out of their slick-fielding outfielder. Span did spend the offseason rehabbing a core muscle injury but is working to be ready to go at full speed by the start of Spring Training. Entering his third season in Washington, Span’s comfort level with his surroundings, working with his fellow outfielders, as well as hitting coach Rick Schu should all bode well for the final year of his existing contract.

Jayson Werth

2014 Season Totals: .292/.394/.455, 141 wRC+, 13.2% BB rate, 18.0% K rate, 4.8 fWAR in 629 PA.
2015 Steamer Proj.: .285/.374/.454, 134 wRC+, 11.8 % BB rate, 18.6% K rate, 2.8 fWAR in 536 PA.

Division Series - San Francisco Giants v Washington Nationals - Game OneConsistency has come to be Jayson Werth’s hallmark in a Nationals’ uniform, and as he enters his fifth season in the District, the expectation that he will remain a stalwart in the Nationals’ lineup remains. While Werth will be working to come back from arthroscopic surgery on the AC joint in his right shoulder, his averages from the previous three years are telling: .303 BA, .394 OBP, .479 SLG, and his projections reflect another strong season. Moving to left field should allow him to rest his legs a little more throughout the season, and hopefully keep him fresh deep into October.

Nate McLouth

2014 Season Totals: .173/.280/.237, 50 wRC+, 9.9% BB rate, 21.6% K rate, -0.6 fWAR in 162 PA.
2015 Steamer Proj.: .238/.312/.354, 88 wRC+, 8.7% BB rate, 17.6% K rate, 0.0 fWAR in 164 PA.

Nate McLouth’s first season in the District was derailed by a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but while the surgery to repair the injury ended his 2014 season prematurely, the Nationals are hopeful he will bounce back well in 2015. The left-handed hitting outfielder gives the Nationals good depth as he can play all three outfield positions, and his bat off the bench should be a nice weapon for Nationals manager Matt Williams.

Michael A. Taylor

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals - Game Two2014 Season Totals: .205/.279/.359, 80 wRC+, 7.0% BB rate, 39.5% K rate, 0.1 fWAR in 43 PA.
2015 Steamer Proj.: .226/.286/.354, 79 wRC+, 7.2% BB rate, 28.1% K rate, -0.3 fWAR in 368 PA.

Michael A. Taylor’s breakout season saw him post eye-popping numbers in Double-A Harrisburg (.313 BA, .336 OBP, .539 SLG, 17 2B, 22 HR, 34 SB), earn a midseason promotion to Triple-A Syracuse and the Major Leagues shortly thereafter with a debut that featured his first hit, as well as home run, at Citi Field. The offseason trade of Steven Souza Jr. pushed Taylor up on the Nationals’ depth chart. Taylor is considered one of the most athletic talents in all of Washington’s system, projecting as good insurance for the Nationals, particularly in center field, where he has the potential to develop into a plus defender.

Brian Goodwin

2014 Season Totals: N/A
2015 Steamer Proj.: .225/.301/.331, 82 wRC+, 9.2% BB rate, 25.2% K rate, 0.0 fWAR in 1 PA.

A first-round selection by the Nationals (No. 34 overall) in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Goodwin had a solid year at Double-A Harrisburg, made good progress in a late-season promotion to Triple-A and performed very well in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 (.296/.333/.444). That was enough to earn him a spot on the Nationals’ 40-man roster for the first time. The promising young outfielder figures to give the Nationals another good depth option as he projects mostly as a center fielder but can play left and right field as well.

Nationals agree to terms with RHP Casey Janssen

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by Amanda Comak

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue JaysThe Washington Nationals added a veteran right-handed arm to the back-end of their bullpen on Monday, agreeing to terms with right-handed pitcher Casey Janssen on a one-year contract with a mutual option for 2016.

Janssen, 33, joins the Nationals after 10 years in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, including five consecutive Major League seasons with an ERA of 3.95 or lower.

“We are happy to add Casey Janssen to our stable of relief arms,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo. “We’re excited about what he will bring to our bullpen – on the mound, as one of the most effective and consistent relievers the last several years, as well as in the clubhouse.

“He is a veteran guy who has a plethora of experience in late, high-leverage innings, and we’re thrilled to add him to our mix.”

In 2014, Janssen was 3-3 with a 3.94 ERA over 45.2 innings pitched. From 2011-2013, however, Janssen was 11-2 with a 2.46 ERA while appearing in 173 games (102 games finished), racking up 58 saves, 170 strikeouts, and posting a 0.977 cumulative WHIP over 172 IP.

Before the All-Star break in 2014, Janssen was 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in 23 games (22 IP) with 14 saves. Over the course of his career, Janssen is 29-24 with a 3.52 ERA, 90 saves, and 368 strikeouts in 493.0 IP.

The third Blue Jays pitcher ever to record three straight 20-save seasons, the veteran right-hander has significant experience in late-inning roles, including 90 career saves – 81 of which were earned in the previous three seasons alone.

With the addition of Janssen, the Nationals have designated right-handed pitcher Eric Fornataro for assignment. Fornataro was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals on a waiver claim in November 2014. In eight Major League games in 2014, Fornataro was 0-0 with a 4.66 ERA.

Nationals sign RHP Max Scherzer to seven-year contract

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by Amanda Comak

Solidifying their starting rotation as arguably the best assembled in Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals agreed to terms with 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer on a seven-year contract on Wednesday. Scherzer will be announced in a 2 pm press conference.

Scherzer_baseballcard_wasScherzer, 30, joins the Nationals after seven Major League seasons with the Detroit Tigers (2010-14) and Arizona Diamondbacks (2008-09) and on the heels of back-to-back All-Star campaigns.

“We are delighted  to welcome Max Scherzer to our organization,” said Theodore N. Lerner, Managing Principal Owner of the Washington Nationals. “An incredibly talented and widely-feared pitcher, Max brings even more depth to an already outstanding rotation. We are confident he will make significant contributions to our pursuit of winning a World Series championship.”

The right-hander is 91-50 with a 3.58 ERA in 207 career games (198 starts) during his seven year career. Since 2012, he has posted at least 10.0 strikeouts/9.0 innings pitched and has eclipsed the 200.0 inning barrier for two straight seasons (2013-14). Since 2009, his first full Major League campaign, Scherzer has made at least 30 starts each season while posting double-digit wins in five straight years (2010-14).

“We could not be happier to add a player of Max’s caliber to our stable of starting pitchers,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo. “It’s not every day that a team adds a Cy Young Award winner to its roster. He is a playoff-tested ace, and we’re excited to call him a part of our family.”

While helping to lead the Tigers to four consecutive AL Central titles, Scherzer earned the 2013 AL Cy Young award after leading the American League in wins (21), while ranking second in strikeouts (240), strikeouts per nine innings (10.8), quality starts (25), batting average against (.198), and fifth in ERA (2.90) and innings pitched (214.1). Scherzer followed that up by going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA in 2014, while posting a career-high 220.1 IP, striking out 252 batters (10.3 batters per nine innings), and finishing fifth in the Cy Young voting.

During his five seasons in the American League, Scherzer has averaged 203 innings pitched per season, to go along with 216 strikeouts (1,081 total) and a 3.52 ERA.

The right-hander joins a rotation that includes three pitchers who finished in the top-10 in 2014 National League Cy Young voting: Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg, along with 15-game winner Tanner Roark, who posted the 12th-best ERA in the NL (2.85), and two-time All-Star Gio Gonzalez.

Before the acquisition of Scherzer, ESPN.com had already ranked the Nationals rotation as the best in the Major Leagues entering 2015.

Originally drafted by Rizzo, who was then the Diamondbacks’ Vice President of Scouting Operations, Scherzer was selected by Arizona  in the first round (No. 11 overall) of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of  Missouri.

Scherzer made his Major League debut on April 29, 2008, and since that time he has compiled the eighth-most strikeouts (1321) of any starting pitcher in the Major Leagues – putting him on a short list of strikeout masters with the likes of Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw.

Nationals acquire INF Yunel Escobar from A’s

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by Amanda Comak

Chicago White Sox v Tampa Bay RaysAdding depth to their middle infield, the Washington Nationals acquired infielder Yunel Escobar from the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, in exchange for right-handed reliever Tyler Clippard.

Escobar, an eight-year Major League veteran, joins the Nationals after stops in Atlanta (2007-10), Toronto (2010-12) and Tampa (2012-14). He was traded to the A’s just four days ago (Jan. 10), along with INF/OF Ben Zobrist, in exchange for C John Jaso, INF Daniel Robertson, OF Boog Powell and cash considerations.

The slick-fielding infielder is a career .276 hitter with a .347 on-base percentage and a .381 slugging percentage. A shortstop for the majority of his Major League career, Escobar has started 950 games at shortstop since 2008 – the most in the Major Leagues over that span. Escobar started 20 games for the Braves at second base in 2007 – a season after which he finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting – and has experience at third base as well.

Escobar, 32, hit .258 with seven home runs and 39 RBI in 137 games for Tampa Bay in 2014. In his previous two seasons, both with the Rays, Escobar has averaged 145 games played and hit .257 with a .328 on-base percentage, 45 doubles, 16 home runs and 95 RBI.

Against National League opponents (472 games), Escobar is a career .291 hitter with a .366 on-base percentage and a .407 slugging percentage.

After defecting from Cuba in 2004, Escobar was drafted by the Braves in the second round (No. 75 overall) of the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Division Series - San Francisco Giants v Washington Nationals - Game TwoClippard, 29, went 34-24 with 34 saves and a 2.68 ERA in 414 games spanning seven seasons with Washington.

Acquired in Dec., 2007, from the New York Yankees in exchange for RHP Jonathan Albaladejo, Clippard is the only reliever to appear in more than 70 games each of the last five seasons (2010-14). He went 7-4 with one save and a 2.18 ERA in 2014 and, for the second time in his career (also 2011), led Major League Baseball in holds with 40. His 2014 season was just the third 40-hold campaign in MLB history (TBR’s Joel Peralta 41 in 2013, SDP’s Luke Gregerson 40 in 2010).

Nationals acquire catcher Dan Butler from Red Sox

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by Amanda Comak

Boston Red Sox Vs. Baltimore Orioles At Fenway ParkAdding depth to their catching corps, the Washington Nationals acquired catcher Dan Butler from the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday, sending left-hander Danny Rosenbaum to Boston to complete the swap.

Butler, 28, joins the Nationals after six seasons in the Red Sox organization. The right-handed hitting catcher appeared in seven Major League games for Boston in 2014, starting five behind the plate and going 4-for-19 (.211). Three of his four hits went for doubles.

Over the course of six Minor League seasons, the reliable backstop is a career .256 hitter with a .349 on-base percentage and a .416 slugging percentage. In 2013, Butler caught 72 games for Triple-A Pawtucket of the International League and posted a .262 average with 14 home runs, 19 doubles and 45 RBI.

Butler, who is considered a strong defensive catcher, was a two-time Mid-Season Minor League All-Star (2010, South Atlantic League; 2011, Carolina League) and a four-time Minor League Player of the Week.

Rosenbaum was selected by Washington in the 22nd round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft out of Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH.

In six seasons in Washington’s Minor League chain, Rosenbaum went 34-36 with a 3.12 ERA in 121 games (116 starts). He is currently rehabbing from May, 2014, Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery.

Butler will be added to the Nationals’ 40-man roster, which is currently at 39.

Nationals announce 2015 Minor League staff

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by Amanda Comak

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati RedsThe Washington Nationals named their Minor League managers, coaches and coordinators for the 2015 season on Wednesday, including the addition of former Nationals player Rick Ankiel, who will fill a newly-created Life Skills Coordinator role.

The Nationals promoted Paul Menhart to Minor League Pitching Coordinator and named Spin Williams as Senior Advisor for Player Development. Menhart embarks on his 10th season in the Nationals’ Minor League system.

Menhart, who spent the 2014 season as the pitching coach for Triple-A Syracuse, has overseen the development of many of Washington’s top pitching prospects. Additionally, Michael Barrett will take an increased role as Catching Coordinator, working with the catchers across all levels of Washington’s system. He will continue to serve as the Manager of the Gulf Coast League Nationals.

Washington is happy to welcome Bob Milacki and Tommy Shields to the organization. Milacki will serve as the pitching coach for Triple-A Syracuse while Shields joins the organization as a Co-field Coordinator.

Milacki comes to the Nationals after spending six seasons (2009-14) in the Philadelphia chain. Prior to joining the Phillies, he spent eight years as a pitching coach in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization (2001-08). Milacki Appeared in 143 games, going 39-47 with a 4.38 ERA over parts of eight seasons in the Major Leagues, with Baltimore (1988-92), Cleveland (1993), Kansas City (1994) and Seattle (1996). He was selected in the second round of the 1983 MLB Draft by Baltimore.

Shields, a native of Fairfax, VA, comes to the Nationals after spending three seasons as the manager of the Burlington Royals in the Kansas City Royals’ chain, earning Appalachian League Manager of the Year honors in 2012. Shields joined the Royals after spending six years as the Atlanta Braves’ minor league infield coordinator (2006-11), and from 2007-10 he served dual roles as the field and infield coordinator. He played parts of eight Minor League seasons in the Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago Cubs’ organizations. A left-handed-hitting infielder, Shields made his Major League debut in 1992 with the Baltimore Orioles but earned his first MLB plate appearance with the Cubs in 1993.

Washington also welcomes back to the organization Ankiel, who will serve as the Life Skills Coordinator. Ankiel retired in 2013 after playing parts of 11 Major League seasons with six different clubs, including the Nationals (2011-12). He will draw on his vast experience as a player to help mentor Nationals farmhands.

The Nationals have also added Jerad Head, who will serve as a coach during Extended Spring Training and for the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League Nationals. Head played eight seasons in the Minor Leagues, including the 2013 season within the Nationals’ chain. Head appeared in 10 games for the Cleveland Indians in 2011 and collected his first MLB hit in his big league debut, August 28 vs. Kansas City.

Here are the full Nationals’ Minor League coaching staffs:

Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs
[International League]
Manager – Billy Gardner Jr.
Pitching – Bob Milacki*
Hitting – Joe Dillon
Athletic Trainer – Jeff Allred
Strength & Conditioning Coach – Brett Henry
Double-A Harrisburg Senators
[Eastern League]
Manager – Brian Daubach
Pitching – Chris Michalak
Hitting – Mark Harris
Athletic Trainer – Eric Montague
Strength & Conditioning Coach – Tony Rogowski
Single-A Potomac Nationals
[Carolina League]
Manager – Tripp Keister
Pitching – Franklin Bravo
Hitting – Brian Rupp
Athletic Trainer – TD Swinford
Strength & Conditioning Coach – Mike Warren
Single-A Hagerstown Suns
[South Atlantic League]
Manager – Patrick Anderson
Pitching – Sam Narron
Hitting – Luis Ordaz
Athletic Trainer – Don Neidig
Strength & Conditioning Coach – Gabe Torres
Short-Season Single-A Auburn Doubledays
[New York-Penn League]
Manager – Gary Cathcart
Pitching – Tim Redding
Hitting – Amaury Garcia
Athletic Trainer – Darren Yoos
Strength & Conditioning Coach – RJ Guyer
Rookie-Level GCL Nationals
[Gulf Coast League]
Manager – Michael Barrett
Pitching – Michael Tejera
Hitting – Jorge MejiaCoach — Jerad Head
Athletic Trainer – Kirby Craft
Strength & Conditioning Coach – Edwin Jimenez
Rookie-Level DSL Nationals
[Dominican Summer League]
Manager – Sandy Martinez
Pitching – Pablo Frias
Hitting – Jose Herrera
Coach – Emiliano Alcantara
Athletic Trainer – Miguel Cabrera
Strength & Conditioning Coach – Santo Del Rosario
Coordinators
Co-Field Coordinator – Jeff Garber Outfield/Baserunning Coordinator – Gary Thurman
Co-Field Coordinator – Tommy Shields* Coordinator of Instruction – Gary Cathcart
Pitching Coordinator – Paul Menhart Rehabilitation Pitching Coordinator – Mark Grater
Sr. Advisor, Player Development – Spin Williams Medical and Rehabilitation Coordinator – Jon Kotredes
Hitting Coordinator – Troy Gingrich Strength and Conditioning Coordinator – Landon Brandes
Catching Coordinator – Michael Barrett Life Skills Coordinator – Rick Ankiel
Minor League Equipment Manager – Calvin Minasian

Jerry Blevins on his experience in the Japan All-Star Series

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by Jerry Blevins

In November, Jerry Blevins joined other Major League All-Stars in a tour of Japan, the Japan All-Star Series. When he returned from his second visit to Japan, Blevins wanted to offer a first-person account of the remarkable trip. What follows is straight from the mind of the Nationals’ left-hander. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved traveling. Experiencing new cultures — trying new foods, seeing new places, hearing different languages — has filled my dreams since I was a kid. Intriguing me, and captivating my imagination and curiosity.

The truth is, I’m a curious person by nature. That’s why my friends call me ‘Whiskers.’

(No one calls me ‘Whiskers’. I stole that from Will Ferrell. ‘Whiskers’ isn’t something I want to be called even though I’ve definitely been called worse.)

Anyway, back to traveling. Baseball has given me many opportunities to travel while playing the game I love. In 2012, I was a member of the Oakland A’s and we opened the season playing the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo. It was, in short, an amazing trip.

2014 Japan All-Star Series - Game 2:  Samurai Japan v. MLB All-StarsI enjoyed Tokyo so much I had planned on going back on vacation. When I heard that MLB and the MLB Players Association were putting together a team to play in Japan against their national team, Samurai Japan, I couldn’t put my name in the mix fast enough.

Thankfully for me, and my fiancé, Whitney, who came with me, I was selected. And during this trip, we would be playing Samurai Japan in Tokyo, as well as, Osaka, Sapporo, and Okinawa.

Before we even left I knew this was going to be a great trip. Not only did Whitney and I get to travel to these cities, but I got to play baseball with an amazingly talented roster. Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria, Yasiel Puig and Justin Morneau were just a few of the players. It was a true all-star caliber team.

Plus some guy named Blevins.

***

One of the things I love about travel is seeing the differences in cultures. But one of the things I love about baseball is that it is virtually the same game wherever it is played.

There are subtle differences about how each country chooses to execute the game. But at it’s core, baseball is baseball: nine innings, three strikes, three outs.

Japanese baseball has evolved, along with the game we know in America. Abner Doubleday is credited with inventing baseball in Cooperstown in 1839, but an American teacher named Horace Wilson taught his students in Tokyo the game sometime between 1867 and 1873. From there, Japan adopted baseball as its own country’s favorite sport.

Without question, the level of talent in Japan makes them an integral part of baseball’s international elite. The talent of those players has translated to MLB success as well. Players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Norichika Aoki, Hideo Nomo, Yu Darvish, and so on, can not only hold their own in MLB, but are some of the best our game has to offer. Hisashi Iwakuma and Tsuyoshi Wada even played for our MLB team against Samurai Japan on this trip.

There were some future MLB players on the Samurai Japan team too. Two pitchers to keep an eye on are Kenta Maeda and Shohei Otani.

As I mentioned, part of what makes baseball so great is that it is a game that transcends differences. The game itself is always the same. That said, playing a baseball game in Japan is a different experience than playing in the US.

Giants & Tigers v MLB All Stars - FriendlyInstead of players picking a walkout song, the fans sing a song for that individual player. They bang on drums and blow trumpets and create a tune specific to that player. I found myself, throughout the tournament, humming along with a couple of the more catchy tunes.

Also, there is no heckling. The Japanese fans are always positive in their cheering. Some American players I know might miss the heckling, others wouldn’t. But I found it so interesting that it just isn’t a part of Japanese baseball at all.

Still, even with the differences in my experiences of playing in Japan, like I said before, baseball is baseball. It is one of the many things I love about the game. But I won’t get into the others, that is an entirely different story.

***

Our first exhibition game was held in Osaka. We played at Koshien Stadium, where Babe Ruth played on MLB’s 1934 tour. It is still in really good shape, considering it was built in 1924.

After the exhibition game, we played our first game that counted in the Osaka Dome. When we took batting practice, I couldn’t help but constantly look up at the roof. It made me feel like I was inside a space ship. Very different from any dome I’ve been in before.

When we were done playing in Osaka, Whitney and I joined a large portion of the traveling party in driving to Kyoto on our off-day before heading to our next game in Tokyo.

Kyoto was incredible. If you ever go to Japan, I would highly suggest you plan to go to Kyoto as part of your trip. The city is wonderfully preserved to showcase Japan’s history and culture. The architecture with temples and shrines are wonderful to see. A place where Japanese traditions are still alive today. If you have ever seen a samurai movie, chances are it was filmed in Kyoto.

Blevins2

Courtesy of Jerry Blevins

For our lunch break, all the players, coaches, wives, and staff on the trip got to experience a geisha performance. Geishas danced and sang for us as we ate. Towards the end of our lunch, they had some of us participate in one of their dances. The dance was both an ode to baseball with a take on rock, paper, scissors.

Of course, no one volunteered right away and Whitney pushed me forward to participate. I ended up beating Puig in a rock, paper, scissors battle. It is up for debate who was the better dancer, but I like to think I held my own. Whitney went up as well and won her match against Julianna Zobrist. International Geisha Rock-Paper-Scissors Champions! We never did get our trophy. Must be in the mail.

We took the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. That was great — once we got on it. The adventure began immediately, as we had a small window from when the doors opened on the train to let passengers in to when they closed. It was a concerted effort to get all of us, with our stuff, on the train before they closed the doors and took off. Apparently, on past trips some people were left behind, bags in hand, as the train sped away.

Once on the train, there wasn’t much to it. It was super smooth as it sped towards Tokyo. The highlight of the ride was getting to see Mt. Fuji. That is a sight. Magnificent how it rises above all that surrounds it.

While in Tokyo, the team was invited to visit the US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. The complex where we were invited was amazing. It is in the heart of Tokyo, surrounded by tall buildings. But on the grounds, there is a huge garden and a huge house where she lives. It is wonderful to walk in the yard and feel serene while you look up and see skyscrapers.

Blevins1

Courtesy of Jerry Blevins

I made sure I took a photo in the same room where Emperor Hirohito and General McArthur took their famous photo together after Japan surrendered in World War II.

One of the highlights of Tokyo was seeing some of the presentations given to our Players Trust and some of our players.

On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit with an earthquake and tsunami. The damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. Over 15,000 were killed with tens of thousands more being displaced without homes. I can’t even pretend to be able to do that tragedy justice with a few short sentences as to how much damage was caused.

The Players Trust, our charitable foundation where we support causes that are important to us as a group, donated $1 million to help in the recovery of the earthquake and tsunami. Before one of our games in Tokyo, the players and Players Trust director, Melissa Persaud, got to see five presentations from the five different recipients of our grants.

It was touching and inspiring to see how they were using our donations to better their lives and the lives of those in their community. If you want to know more about it, visit: playerstrust.org.

The morning before we left Tokyo, Whitney and I went to Shibuya Crossing. It is a famous intersection where five streets meet. All the traffic lights turn red at the same time, and then it’s a true scramble. We sat up in a second-story Starbucks to watch it for a while. The Starbucks itself was an adventure — it is one of the busiest in the world. But from there, the view of the crossing is hard to beat. A full sea of people embark to cross at the same time, filling the streets.

From Tokyo, we flew to Sapporo. Sapporo is famous for their beer, of course, but also for their snow. The city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972. Luckily for us, there was only a couple of inches on the ground.

We played our game in the Sapporo Dome. This is easily the biggest dome I’ve ever seen. I was told it could hold the Tokyo Dome inside its own dome. The dome is famous for having a retractable surface. The baseball games are held on turf and soccer games are played on grass. The grass surface slides in when some of the bleachers are rotated to accommodate the change. Unfortunately, they opted for fiscal responsibility and didn’t acquiesce to my request to see the switch at work for my own amusement.

And yes, I did have a Sapporo while in Sapporo. And it was glorious. On the same night I drank their famous beer, I tried a food that wasn’t glorious in any sense.

 

Whitney and I went to dinner with Rob Wooten of the Brewers and his wife, Chris Capuano of the Yankees and his wife, and Randy Choate of the Cardinals and his wife. As we were reading the menus we came across the name “Maguro Shuto.” The translation under the item was as follows: Fish Guts pickled in Salt of the Tuna. As soon as he read this, Rob Wooten yells, “I dare you to eat that!” Wonderful Rob, thanks buddy.

If you follow me on twitter, @JerryBlevins_13, you might have seen the video I posted of me completing this dare. If you happened to miss that gem I’ll help you out. It was not good. I thought something might have been lost in translation. Turns out, the only thing lost was my appetite.

We ended our tour of Japan by flying from the northern city of Sapporo to the southern city of Okinawa.

Courtesy of Jerry Blevins

Courtesy of Jerry Blevins

Okinawa was a great place to end the trip. It was warm and touristy in the best sense. Most of the people we ran into were on vacation; including the Japanese people. Along with the warm weather, Okinawa is home to 32 US military bases. The best thing about playing in Okinawa for myself, and a lot of the other players, was the ability to play in front of a large contingent of US military personnel.

To end the trip playing in front of the wonderful and mixed crowd of Japanese and Americans was perfect.

Japan is really a beautiful country. I love a city with a skyline and Japan has several of them. The skylines of Osaka and Tokyo are true masterpieces. They are right up there on my list with some of my favorite American road stops in San Francisco, Toronto, and Chicago.

If mountains are your thing, Mt. Fuji is beauty in the truest sense. It is breathtaking. There is a reason why so many have featured it in paintings. It’s too bad I only got to see it from the bullet train this visit. During the Opening Series in 2012, I was fortunate enough to take a helicopter ride nearby, and was able to admire it from a better perspective. But even from a speeding train, its beauty is unmistakable.

Japan is also extremely clean. There isn’t any trash on the ground — wherever you look. Some of the other players and I used to search for it in public places, to just point it out to each other. “There it is! Look at it!” I carried an empty bottle I saw on the ground for 20 minutes looking for a trash can while walking through Tokyo before I threw it away in the hotel — not because I’m a great person, but because there aren’t any trash cans on the streets either.

I was also told it’s considered rude to eat and drink while walking in public. They have so much respect for their country, and each other, that they don’t want to soil it. People either consume what they buy where they buy it and throw it away there, or they take the trash home with them and recycle it themselves. Hence, no trash cans on the streets.

Whatever the reason for the cleanliness, it is a great part of their culture and one I wish we would adopt in a more widespread way here in the US.

***

Remember back at the beginning here when I let you all in on my curious nature? I think my curiosity has developed from one basic question that I’ve often asked myself: “What would my career be if I were born _____?”

If I were born in England, would I be a soccer player? Had my parents lived in Canada, would I be playing hockey? Probably not, but curling looks like a blast. My aspirations to understand something or someone that is different from me is what pushes me to travel. I think I’ve always possessed an ability to empathize with others and understand where they are coming from. And learning as much as I can about other places and cultures is an extension of that.

So the question is: what if I were born in Japan? I think that answer is a fun one.

I believe I would still be a professional baseball player. That is where my love and respect for Japan starts. The beautiful country, with beautiful people, keep me talking about it. Hopefully I will be able to visit it again. ​

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